Houston Matters

Are Threatening Rap Lyrics Protected by Free Speech?

Historically, courts have held that the First Amendment protects a broad range of expression, even offensive speech. But in recent years, there have been cases where such language – in the form of rap lyrics – has been introduced in criminal proceedings. The Supreme Court will rule soon in one such case – Elonis v. […]

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Historically, courts have held that the First Amendment protects a broad range of expression, even offensive speech. But in recent years, there have been cases where such language – in the form of rap lyrics – has been introduced in criminal proceedings.

The Supreme Court will rule soon in one such case – Elonis v. United States. Back in 2010, after his wife left him, Anthony Elonis began to post violent rap lyrics on his Facebook page. He included disclaimers, noting his lyrics were fiction, and that he was exercising free speech. But some of those lyrics were perceived as threats against his ex-wife and an FBI agent. He was arrested, charged and convicted, and sentenced to 44 months in prison.

Many popular songs over the years have had lyrics some might perceive as threatening. But why are rap lyrics specifically being singled out in courtrooms? It's a question that bugs Michael Olivas, a Professor of Law at the University of Houston, who comments on the intersection of music and law for a public radio station in New Mexico. He shares his thoughts as to why rappers sometimes find their lyrics used against them in court, with Houston Matters' Maggie Martin.

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