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Poetry or threat? The Supreme Court may weigh in on rap lyrics as evidence.

What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: Poetry or threat? The Supreme Court may weigh in on rap lyrics as evidence.

  • The Appeal Podcast: Pushing for police accountability in Sacramento

  • What happens before police press ‘record’?

  • ‘Broken windows’ policing hinders academic performance of Black teenagers

  • Largest-ever study of traffic stops shows minorities stopped more often, based on less evidence

  • Jacksonville votes for a sheriff on Tuesday

In the Spotlight

Poetry or threat? The Supreme Court may weigh in on rap lyrics as evidence

“There is one musical genre that seems almost wholly devoted to violence,” write two music professors and one criminologist in a 2017 academic paper. “Dozens of the most popular works in this genre graphically depict murders. Male protagonists boast about their physical and sexual prowess, frequently challenging other males to battles for no other reason than sheer pride.” Women are often “portrayed as wanton and shallow and easily manipulated for sexual purposes. … That genre, of course, is opera.” Opera lovers understand that “violent and sexual themes are conventions within the genre” and it would be bizarre to take them as literal threats or descriptions. [Nicholas Stoia, Kyle Adams, and Kevin Drakulich / Race and Justice]

But another musical genre, rap, is increasingly interpreted that way. Prosecutors use rap lyrics as admissions of past behavior, as indicative of a criminal or violent disposition, and, in some cases, as crimes themselves.

Five years ago, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts, enlivened an oral argument by reciting raw and violent lyrics written by rapper Eminem. Roberts worried that ignoring the song’s musical and cultural context could “subject to prosecution the lyrics that a lot of rap artists use.” Now, that question is before the Court. The case concerns Jamal Knox, an artist who raps under the name Mayhem Mal. After Knox was arrested in 2012 in Pittsburgh on gun and drug charges, he and a friend recorded a song named after the N.W.A. classic “F*ck tha Police.” The friend posted the song on YouTube and Facebook. The song featured sounds of sirens and gunfire, named the arresting officers who were scheduled to testify, and included lyrics like “let’s kill these cops ’cause they don’t do us no good.” [Adam Liptak / New York Times]

Prosecutors charged Knox, 19, with issuing terroristic threats and intimidating witnesses. At his sentencing, Knox said he had adopted a persona in the song. “I mean, as a rapper, we have to put on an image,” he told the judge. “So even when things may go wrong, like you got to make it still seem like as if it’s right.” A group of hip-hop stars, including Chance the Rapper, Meek Mill, Killer Mike, Yo Gotti, Fat Joe, and 21 Savage, filed a brief urging the Supreme Court to hear Knox’s First Amendment challenge to his conviction. “This is a work of poetry,” the rappers wrote. “It is not intended to be taken literally, something that a reasonable listener with even a casual knowledge of rap would understand.” They also cited Ice-T’s memoir, in which he explained the distance between himself and the persona he created in the song “Cop Killer.” “If you believe that I’m a cop killer,” he wrote, “you believe David Bowie is an astronaut.” [Adam Liptak / New York Times]

“We all should be worried any time someone is prosecuted for speech,” Andrew Tutt, a lawyer for Knox, told The Daily Appeal in an email. “One of rap’s most important functions, to highlight police abuse, is placed in serious jeopardy when the government prosecutes those same songs as threats and incarcerates the artists who create them.” Tutt adds that whenever the government chills speech, it can impede our ability to govern ourselves. “If my neighbor hates the police and wants to tell me and the whole world why, I’d rather he tell me than keep it to himself. Letting people talk is the best way we find out where the problems are and start fixing them.”

The First Amendment is not absolute. Exceptions include libel, incitement, obscenity, fighting words, and, at issue in this case, “true threats.” Prosecutions for threats are not uncommon, but “the Supreme Court has not given definitive guidance on how to tell when a threat is a crime,” writes Adam Liptak in the New York Times. “It has suggested that two things are needed: that the speaker intended to make a threat and that a reasonable listener would have understood the statement to be a threat.” In Knox’s case, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found proof that he intended to issue threats, but seemed to say that it was unnecessary to prove that his statements would reasonably be understood as threats. Knox’s lawyers argue that this leaves a dangerous gap. “The notion that one could commit a ‘speech crime’ by uttering an objectively harmless statement with bad intent is profoundly chilling,” they wrote. [Adam Liptak / New York Times]

“Content-based prohibitions, enforced by severe criminal penalties, have the constant potential to be a repressive force in the lives and thoughts of a free people,” begins an amicus brief filed for Knox by two libertarian organizations, the Cato Institute and the Rutherford Institute. And the state of the law with respect to true threats “is hopelessly muddled.” They urge the Court to “keep the ‘true threats’ exception narrow,” by requiring that, for any prosecution, the speech be “both objectively threatening and subjectively intended as a threat.” The need for a high standard “is doubly true online,” where it can be hard to tell when a troll is just trolling. “As the Internet enhances our ability to communicate and express our views, it also enhances the government’s ability to police our communication and expression.” [Cato/Rutherford amicus brief / Knox v. Pennsylvania]          

Rap lyrics are particularly vulnerable to this kind of policing. Nicholas Stoia, Kyle Adams, and Kevin Drakulich show, through textual analyses of lyrics “identifying common formulas and connecting them to relevant social factors,” that “fictionalized accounts of violence form the stock-in-trade of rap and should not be interpreted literally.” [Nicholas Stoia, Kyle Adams, and Kevin Drakulich / Race and Justice]

Postdoctoral researcher Adam Dunbar has conducted experiments examining how rap-specific stereotypes affect the way people view violence in songs. Predominantly white participants read lyrics from a folk song, but were told that the lyrics were either rap or country. The study found that participants deemed identical lyrics more literal, offensive, and in greater need of regulation when they believed them to be rap, compared to country. To Dunbar, this means that the “mere label of ‘rap’ is sufficient to induce negative evaluations.” Other research reveals that when violent lyrics are described as rap, people are more likely to view the songwriter as being in a gang and having a criminal disposition, compared to when identical lyrics are described as country, punk, or heavy metal. [Adam Dunbar / Crime Report] Which all means Johnny Cash probably won’t be charged for shooting a man in Reno “just to watch him die.”

Stories From The Appeal


Black Lives Matter protesters marching on April 4, 2018, in Sacramento, California. [Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]

The Appeal Podcast: Pushing for Police Accountability in Sacramento. Appeal senior staff reporter Aaron Morrison talks with Adam about the protests in Sacramento, California, and how activists are working to seek justice for Stephon Clark, who was killed by two of the citys police officers. [Adam H. Johnson]

What Happens Before Police Press ‘Record’? Critics say New York’s new interrogation recording law falls short. [Curtis Stephen]

Stories From Around the Country

‘Broken windows’ policing hinders academic performance of Black teenagers: New research demonstrates that aggressive policing of low-level offenses has a negative impact on the scholastic performance of young Black teenagers in affected neighborhoods. Joscha Legewie, assistant professor of sociology at Harvard, and Jeffrey Fagan, professor of law and epidemiology at Columbia University, found that for Black boys 13-15, the stress of even potential interaction with law enforcement lowered educational performance and added to inequality of economic outcomes. “These findings provide evidence that the consequences of policing extend into key domains of social life,” said Legewie. “They highlight the hidden costs of aggressive policing programs and suggest that police reformers, policymakers, and researchers should consider these broader implications for assessing the effectiveness of policing.” [Joscha Legewie and Jeffrey Fagan / American Sociological Review]

Largest-ever study of traffic stops shows minorities stopped more often, based on less evidence: Stanford researchers have compiled the largest set of traffic-stop data ever collected, which points to pervasive inequality in how police decide to stop and search white and minority drivers. The Stanford Open Policing Project examined almost 100 million traffic stops conducted from 2011 to 2017 across 21 state agencies and 29 municipal police departments. The results depended, in part, on which jurisdictions kept and handed over data. “The results showed that police stopped and searched Black and Latinx drivers on the basis of less evidence than used in stopping white drivers, who are searched less often but are more likely to be found with illegal items,” according to NBC News. The study does not, however, set out to conclude whether officers knowingly engaged in racial discrimination. One interesting finding was that after recreational marijuana was legalized in Colorado and Washington State, searches of both white and minority drivers went down. But the search rate remained twice as high for minorities. [Erik Ortiz / NBC News]

Jacksonville votes for a sheriff on Tuesday: Next week, Republican incumbent Mike Williams will seek a second term against Democratic challenger Tony Cummings in the race for sheriff in Florida’s Duval County. LA series of local investigations have documented racial disparities in the sheriff department’s policing practices, as well as gaps in accountability. Cummings has called for greater civilian oversight, and he talked to the Appeal: Political Report about how sheriffs have a role to play in fighting mass incarceration by reducing arrests. But Cummings has not said he would dismantle the county’s close cooperation with ICE; Duval County is part of the federal agency’s 287(g) program. [Daniel Nichanian / The Appeal: Political Report]

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you next week.

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