"Kill the cops" rap turns out not to be protected speech

While free speech is a right granted to all citizens, artists and performers generally tend to get an even wider pass for saying controversial things. The government has traditionally been loath to bring down the hammer on singers, painters, and others in the artistic community to avoid looking too much like a totalitarian state. That’s generally a good idea, but free speech does have its limits, as was proven this week in Pennsylvania. A pair of rappers was convicted of inciting violence against the police back in 2014 after recording a charming song with the title of F*** the Police. In it, they specifically called out by name a pair of officers who had arrested them, describing various acts of violence which should befall them.

They challenged the conviction citing free speech rights, now the state’s highest court has rejected their appeal. (WaPo)

A rap song that identified specific Pittsburgh police officers by name and made direct threats of violence against them is not protected speech under the First Amendment, Pennsylvania’s highest court ruled Tuesday.

The ruling by Chief Justice Thomas G. Saylor upheld the conviction of Jamal Knox, now 24, who was found guilty in 2014 of making terroristic threats and witness intimidation for writing and performing a 2012 song titled, “F— the Police.” According to the opinion, the song named and threatened two officers, Daniel Zeltner and Michael Kosko, and a music video for the song also featured photos of them.

The officers arrested Knox and Rashee Beasley, the other rapper on the track, in April 2012 on various drug and weapons charges, and were scheduled to testify against them, according to the opinion.

These rappers were already going down for drug and illegal gun charges, which I assume is how one cuts their teeth in some segments of the rap community. But the “song” they released while awaiting trial (where the two police officers were scheduled to testify against them) clearly crossed the line by a wide margin. They not only called out the officers by name but indicated where they lived and what shift they typically worked.

They described desired attacks on the cops in gruesome detail, including “I’ma jam this rusty knife all in his guts and chop his feet.” (Attacking someone’s feet seems to be an odd choice, but I’m guessing he needed to rhyme it with something?) The pair finished up with a direct instruction, just in case there was any doubt remaining. “Let’s kill these cops cuz they don’t do us no good.” I suppose they could have hired an attorney who was also an English major to argue that the double negative in that sentence mitigated the threat, but it wasn’t meant to be.

Despite the normal tolerance shown to singers when it comes to free speech, you’re still not allowed to incite violence and mayhem. Singing “F*** the police” and complaining about the justice system is one thing. Instructing your fans to stick a knife in somebody and providing them with a time and location to do so is no longer protected speech. The courts made the right call on this one.

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