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Wednesday, October 7, 2009

British "stop snitching" rap song on YouTube leads to convictions

Two british rappers have been convicted of obstructing justice for putting an anti-snitching rap song on YouTube. Story here. The two men had been arrested but not prosecuted in connection with a shooting murder last year. While the defendants claimed the song was just gangsta rap, the government argued that "the video had but one purpose--to threaten any witness to this incident to frighten them to such an extent that they would refuse to cooperate with the police."

The U.S. has First Amendment protections for art and speech that the U.K. lacks, which would make it significantly more difficult to prosecute such cases. Here, the government would have a heavy burden to show that the rap song represented a true threat aimed at a particular person and not a more general expression of anti-snitch sentiment. Although I am unaware of any such prosecutions to date, it is only a matter of time. A recent note in the Columbia Journal of Law & the Arts entitled "Can't Stop Snitchin': Criminalizing Threats Made in 'Stop Snitching' Media under the True Threats Exception to the First Amendment," addresses the legal standard. The piece argues that with sufficient specificity, some "stop snitching" songs might lose their First Amendment protection and qualify as threats, although it would be rare. As author Jacob Honigman puts it:
It might be theoretically possible--by recording a song that references a particular person or crime in a manner sufficiently serious enough to indicate that the artist actually intends to commit an act of violence, or by performing a song threatening snitches in front of a courthouse as a trial is scheduled to begin--for a hip-hop artist to cross the true threat line. But I am not aware of any such instance. This, combined with the tradition of affording all forms of music, including rap, full First Amendment protection, make it extremely unlikely that such a statement could be criminalized.
More generally, the First Amendment has not prevented rap lyrics from being used against their authors as criminal evidence. Rap songs have been admitted as evidence to show a defendant's intent or knowledge or as confessions of past criminal acts. Law Professor Andrea Dennis wrote an article on the phenomenon entitled "Poetic (In)Justice? Rap Music Lyrics as Art, Life, and Criminal Evidence," in which she argues that courts misapprehend the artistic significance of rap lyrics when they treat them as simple admissions of guilt or factual descriptions of a rapper's life.