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The Rap on the State Justice System

By Shohin Vance

Meek Mill isn’t the only Pennsylvania rapper who has a beef with the state’s justice system.  Enter Jamal Knox, aka “Mayhem Mal,” an amateur rapper from Pittsburgh, whose case was recently heard by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.  Knox is appealing his criminal conviction for terroristic threats and witness intimidation, which were based on a rap song posted to YouTube, threatening violence against the Pittsburgh Police Department.

Understanding Knox’s conviction requires some brief background.  In 2012, Knox, who apparently was well known to the local police force in Pittsburgh – both for his criminal mischief and artistic prowess – was arrested and charged with various offenses related to drug and firearm possession.  Knox was subsequently released on bail and, while the charges were pending, Knox recorded a rap song titled “F**k the Police.”  (No word yet on whether N.W.A., whose members include Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, will be bringing an action against Knox for releasing a song with the exact same title as their 1988 hit from the album “Straight Outta Compton.”).  While most of Knox’s threats and grievances in the song are aimed more broadly at the entire police force, he refers, by name, to two officers that he had previously encountered, one of whom was the arresting officer in the 2012 incident mentioned above.

After the song was brought to the attention of the Pittsburgh Police Department, Knox was rearrested, at which point, the witness intimidation and terroristic threat charges were added.  A bench trial followed and Knox was convicted of multiple offenses, including the ones related to the rap song.  Knox appealed to the Superior Court, arguing that his conviction for intimidation and terrorist threats should be set aside, because the rap song was protected speech under the United States Constitution and not, as the prosecution argued, a “true threat” that falls outside the ambit of the safeguards offered by the First Amendment.  The court affirmed, but did not address the substantive legal question presented for its review, finding the argument waived on evidentiary grounds.

The Supreme Court, however, was apparently unpersuaded by the Superior Court’s waiver determination, and granted allocatur to address the central constitutional issue that the intermediate court avoided.  In its broadest sense, the case turns on the interpretation of United States Supreme Court precedent distinguishing a “true threat” from “mere hyperbole” protected by the First Amendment.  But further complicating matters is the very nature of this genre of music.  Knox has emphasized that rap music, particularly the subset known as “gangsta rap,” is characterized by hyperbolic expressions of violence and other acts that may seem distasteful.  Whether the Court decides to consider the lyrics in a vacuum, or against the artistic backdrop that Knox urges will likely have significant impact on its ultimate decision.  Another constitutional principle implicated by this case is that political speech is ordinarily entitled to the highest degree of protection.  Whether the Court accepts Knox’s contention that the song, despite referencing the two officers by name, was a more expansive political and societal commentary on the criminal justice system, is also likely to affect its analysis and final resolution.  Suffice it to say that, regardless of the decision issued by the Court, it would not be surprising to see this case before the United States Supreme Court in the future.