Monday, March 15, 2010

Lyrics and Expression- James Riggio

In July of 2009, a Florida rapper known as T.O. was arrested and plead no contest to charges of threatening a public servant based on lyrics from a song of his, “”Kill Me a Cop,” that say in part, “I’ma kill me a cop one day,” and was sentenced to 2 years in jail. The question, however, is whether these song lyrics even constitute any sort of crime.

Antavio Johnson plead no contest in order to avoid a longer jail sentence. Prosecutors in the case believed that the lyrics were a crime, not only because the rapper threatened police, but because he named two police officers specifically in the song.

In order to determine if this speech was a true threat, one must look at the totality of circumstances. The first is how listeners would react to hearing these lyrics. The police department obviously took this as a true threat, as did prosecutors, considering charges were brought against him. However, the main intended audience was fans of his work, so to truly understand how audiences felt, some T.O fans would have to be spoken to. Although no articles I have read speak to any of them, I would gather that most were not offended; many other rap songs also bash and threaten cops without crimes being brought against them, and most fans of the genre would probably understand that it is a song and nothing more.

The second factor is past experience. Although he was in jail at the time due to an unrelated probation violation, the fact that this seems to be a onetime event and not a pattern makes the speech less threatening. However, it would seem as though Johnson has some sort of history with these two cops to single them out, although the extent of that history is unknown. This exact history would have to be further investigated to truly understand the situation.

The third factor deals with whether or not the threat was directed toward an individual or not. This is where I believe things get a little tricky. Although the two officers were named in the song, the threats were not said directly to them; it is not as though Johnson went up to them on the street and verbalized the threats to them, and even that in itself doesn’t mean it’s a threat. The officers would have to listen to the song to even know the threat existed.

The final factor is whether or not the victim truly believes the threat will be carried out. In my opinion, I cannot see how the officers could honestly believe the threat would be carried out. Johnson was in jail at the time the lyrics were discovered, making it impossible for him to carry them out at the time. The lyrics and song were also between two and three years old, and he had not yet carried out the threats of killing the cops.

Would the average person see this as being a threat? The fact that he put it out there, put the “threat” in his music that, it today’s world, can literally be listened to by anybody, makes me think that this is not a true threat. If you wanted to truly kill someone, I don’t think making that wish public is very smart. The lyrics seem to be more of a way to venting frustration rather than a threat. I find these lyrics to be extremely stupid, but do not think they are a true threat, and believe he should not be serving time in jail because of them. The lyrics, in my opinion, are simply expression, and therefore should be protected by the First Amendment.

Below are links to 2 articles (one from FoxNews and the other from FoxTampa), as well as the lyrics of the song in question:

FoxNews-
http://www.foxnews.com/entertainment/2009/08/01/amendment-lawyers-say-jailing-rapper-kill-cop-lyrics-violates-rights/

FoxTampa- http://www.myfoxtampabay.com/dpp/news/local/polk/Rap_artist_writes_lyrics_thre\

Lyrics-
http://www.wtsp.com/news/mostpop/story.aspx?storyid=110682&provider=top

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