Rap Lyrics & Digital Rights Are At Stake In The Supreme Court's Latest Case
Everyone's favorite Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg may be a fan of her well-deserved nickname, Notorious R.B.G., but whether she would extend her affection to her namesake's music has yet to be determined. On Monday, the Supreme Court will hear a case that calls rap lyrics and digital rights into question, and may set an interesting precedent for how certain types of music, or rather, their lyrics, are to be interpreted. The key issue at stake in Monday's case rests upon how rap lyrics, particularly those suggesting violent actions, are to be perceived. In other words, does rapping about killing someone constitute a threat?
The case, Elonis v. USA, involves Anthony Elonis of Pennsylvania, who posted a series of rap lyrics on his Facebook page in 2010 when he was 27-years-old. The problem, however, was that the lyrics were about his estranged wife (who left with their two children after a seven-year marriage), an FBI agent and a few other individuals, and were somewhat less than complimentary. On the contrary, law enforcement officials determined them to be threats. One of the lyrics, which is aimed at the FBI, reads, "Pull my knife, flick my wrist, and slit her throat/ Leave her bleedin' from her jugular in the arms of her partner." He also wrote of taking a gun to a kindergarten class and killing his ex-wife.
According to Elonis, these expressions of anger were not intended as threats, and moreover, are protected under his First Amendment rights of free speech. He posted on his Facebook page, "Did you know that it's illegal for me to say I want to kill my wife? It's illegal. It's indirect criminal contempt. It's one of the only sentences that I'm not allowed to say." Justifying his words and his lengthy Facebook rants as a part of his artistic prerogative, Elonis added, "Art is about pushing limits. I'm willing to go to jail for my constitutional rights. Are you?"
Despite Elonis' insistence that his lyrics were no incriminating than, say, Eminem's song "Kim," in which the award-winning rapper creates a graphic fantasy of his wife and her lover's deaths, ending the song with the lines, "NOW BLEED! BITCH BLEED!/BLEED! BITCH BLEED! BLEED!" The album on which "Kim" was featured, by the way, won Eminem a Grammy.
But whereas Eminem's hate-fueled, misogynistic and decidedly violent rap resulted in the celebration of his musical talents, Elonis was instead sentenced to 44 months in prison, after lower courts determined that any "reasonable person" would perceive his lyrics as a threat. The 28-year-old served over three years of his sentence, and was released earlier this year in February. Numerous appeals have now gone through the system with varying results, as both state and federal courts remain split on whether or not subjective intent serves as a prerequisite for a threat. And now, the Supreme Court has found itself in the thick of things.
This decision could have incredibly far-reaching consequences, and is one that the justices have attempted to avoid for quite some time. Last year, they refused to hear a very similar case involving a man who threatened to kill the judge who'd ruled against him in his child custody case via YouTube. And today, with social media platforms more virulent than ever, the line in the sand is becoming more and more difficult to determine.
Elonis' Supreme Court petition speaks to the continued influence of sites like Facebook and Twitter, stating,
The issue is growing in importance as communication online by e-mail and social media has become commonplace. Modern media allow personal reflections intended for a small audience (or no audience) to be viewed widely by people who are unfamiliar with the context in which the statements were made and thus who may interpret the statements much differently than the speakers intended.
Now that the world is more connected, and seemingly smaller, than ever, cases like Elonis' bring into sharp relief the issue with such massive information sharing platforms that make privacy nearly impossible. Justices will likely have to weigh how much free speech matters with an ever-expanding audience in our digital age.
But another, perhaps even more confounding question, lies in the role that rap will invariably play in this case. The justices, who have an average age of 68, with four over the age of 70, are not exactly rap's target listening demographic. And the music genre has come under fire many times before for its potential role in inciting violent behavior. In 2006, a study released by the Prevention Research Center of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation in Berkeley suggested that "young people who listen to rap and hip-hop are more likely to abuse alcohol and commit violent acts." And some of rap's brightest stars, like Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac, fell to early, tragic deaths as a result of the violence that was often depicted in their music.
But for every study that links violent rap and hip-hop with a spike in crime rate, there is a study that claims the opposite. Earlier this year, for example, The Wire noted data compiled from the FBI and Whitburn Project, "an ongoing, underground tabulation of the popularity of singles dating back to 1890," showed that the opposite relationship was true — as rap became more popular, both overall and violent crime declined.
While rap has long been targeted as the ugly pinnacle of racist, sexist, violent lyrics, several other genres, including some very, very scary death metal, some rock 'n' roll, and some country, have advanced similar notions in some way or another. These problems with perception are not just rooted in one musical genre, but are rather reflective of a larger, more pervasive trend in society that finds a medium of communication in "artistic expression." "Rap culture," however, has become synonymous with black culture, and as recent events in Ferguson and elsewhere have shown, America's racist underpinnings have wasted no time in connecting the two with violence and crime.
So what exactly does the intersection of art and free speech look like today? And is "rap culture" really a threat to American society? These are the questions that Notorious R.B.G. and company will have to answer very soon, and their decision may very well change the digital and musical landscape forever.
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