The U.S. Supreme Court has expanded the definition of “true threat” by refusing to accept and rule on a case brought by a rapper whose lyrics likely offended some people.
The Rutherford Institute, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case Knox v. Pennsylvania, said the decision means individuals “who engage in controversial and unpopular political or artistic expression, by criticizing the police for example, can be labeled terrorists and subject to prosecution and suppression by the government.”
“Instead of targeting terrorists engaged in true threats, the government has turned ordinary citizens into potential terrorists, so that if we dare say the wrong thing in a phone call, letter, email or on the internet, especially social media, we end up investigated, charged and possibly jailed,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute.
“This criminalization of free speech, which is exactly what the government’s prosecution of those who say the ‘wrong’ thing using an electronic medium amounts to, is at the heart of every case that wrestles with where the government can draw the line when it comes to expressive speech that is protected as opposed to speech that could be interpreted as connoting a criminal intent.”
Rutherford asserted that by refusing to hear the case of rapper Jamal Knox, the court has approved the government’s expanded definition of threat.
Knox was charged “with making terroristic threats after posting a song critical of police on Facebook and YouTube.” It was based on a recording he made about his own experiences being arrested.
But Rutherford had contended that “allowing the government to expand its definition of what constitutes a ‘true threat’ could have significant chilling effects on online communications and controversial art forms, including expressive activity shared through social media such as Facebook and YouTube, particularly in an age when the government engages in unprecedented monitoring of new and ever-changing forms of expression, online and otherwise.”
Knox had teamed with Rashee Beasley for a rap group that created a song called “F— the police.”
In contained “violent lyrical rhetoric regarding the police that is typical of the rap genre and its commentary on the experiences of minorities at the hands of law enforcement.”
The institute said police were monitoring him, and when they found the song, he was charged with terrorist threats and witness intimidation.
The district court rejected Knox’s argument that the lyrics were protected by the First Amendment, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed. That ruling stands, since the U.S. Supreme Court did not take the case.