Should Ice Cube Be Worried? Pennsylvania Supreme Court Upholds Convictions For Terroristic Threats And Witness Intimidation Based On Rap Song

October 5, 2018

The internet is a wonderful thing, it allows us to connect with family and friends that live across the globe, it allows us to do our holiday shopping without leaving the comfort of our homes and has launched the careers of countless of musicians. However, two recent aspiring musicians, found themselves arrested for violent lyrics aimed at two Pittsburgh Police Officers.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently upheld convictions for terroristic threats and witness intimidation based on a rap song published on the internet in the case of Commonwealth v. Jamal Knox. In April 2012, Pittsburgh Police Officer Michael Kosko initiated a routine traffic stop of a vehicle driven by Knox. Knox was in the car with his co-defendant. While Officer Kosko was questioning Knox, he sped away, ultimately crashing his vehicle. He then fled on foot, but was quickly apprehended and placed under arrest. The police found fifteen stamp bags containing heroin and a large sum of cash on Knox's person, as well as a loaded, stolen firearm on the driver's-side floor of the vehicle. Based on this, Knox was charged with a number of offenses.

While the charges were pending, Knox and his co-defendant recorded a rap song and video called "F-ck the Police." Not an original title but unlike the old N.W.A. song of the same name, this song included specific references to Officer Kosko and another officer. It repeatedly discussed violence against police officers and included a verse stating that "Well your shift over at three and I'm gonna f-ck up where you sleep." Both officers viewed the video because it was posted on Facebook page that was being monitored. The Officers were very disturbed by the video, Officer Kosko even cited it as one of the reasons why he decided to leave the Pittsburgh Police force and relocate. Based on this, Knox was charged with additional counts of terroristic threats and witness intimidation based on this song.

Knox and co-defendant argued that the rap song was protected speech as it was artistic speech and not intended to be taken as a literal threat. Despite this, Knox was convicted and his conviction was upheld by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The Court found that in this case, the song had crossed the line from simple artistic expression to actual threats that reasonable person would interpret as such. The officers convinced the court that they had a legitimate reason to believe that Knox might engage in violence. The police were aware that a loaded firearm had been found near the Knox's feet in an automobile he was driving. However, he was ultimately acquitted of the firearms charges, but the video was posted to the internet and seen by the officers before the trial that resulted in the acquittal on the firearm charges.

In the end, the Court found that the First Amendment must give way when there is artistic speech that can be interpreted reasonably as an actual threat. It remains to be seen whether the US Supreme Court will take up this case, but for now it constitutes a lesson that simply because you are engaging in musical or artistic expression does not necessarily insulate everything you do as protected speech. In most instances, what a person states in a song or performance cannot reasonably be interpreted as an actual intent to harm. Nobody sought to arrest Ice-T when he made a song in the 90's called "Cop Killer" because it was a more generalized angst toward police officers that could not be interpreted as an actual threat. However, while this is certain not to be the end of the jurisprudence on this issue, the Pennsylvania courts have found you can go too far.

The lesson? The internet provides a powerful platform that allows our voice to reach billions of people, however, as big and powerful as the internet is, it is not bigger than our laws and rules of society. When a person posts something – anything – on the internet, they must be mindful that they can be sued – or even arrested – if their comments cross the line.

If you find yourself the subject of inappropriate comments, or are being accused, either criminally or civilly, of making such comments it is important that you have a skilled and seasoned attorney on your side. The lawyers at Conway Schadler have extensive criminal and civil experience that can make the difference in these types of situations. Please contact our offices for a free consultation so we can discuss how this substantial experience can be used to your benefit.