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Song Lyrics and the First Amendment

Cannabis Legal Solutions founding partner Patrick K. Nightingale, along with Magistrate-elect and attorney Mikhail Pappas, appeared before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Tuesday, November 28, 2017.

The case in question involves the lyrics to a rap song.

Jamal Knox, 23, and Rashee Beasley, 26, wrote and performed their song in 2012, and someone — they say it wasn’t them — uploaded it to YouTube in November of that year.

Shortly thereafter, they were charged by Pittsburgh police who construed the song’s lyrics as threats made specifically against Det. Daniel Zeltner and Officer Michael Kosko, both of whom had previously arrested the men.

“The song was artistic in nature. As a gangster rap artist, Knox considered himself a poet, musician, and entertainer,” Mr. Nightingale wrote in his brief, going on to say,   “Rap music served as his vehicle for self-expression, self-realization, economic gain, inspiring pride and respect from their peers, and speaking on public issues including police violence, on behalf of him and others who may lack the courage or ability to speak on such issues. Threatening police was not the intent of Knox’s expression.”

The ACLU has also weighed in on the case.

In a friend-of-the-court brief, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania wrote that artistic expression is often disturbing, offensive and shocking.

“This is especially true of rap, Knox’s musical genre,” attorneys wrote. “As scholars of the genre have described it, rap is a form of political expression that gives voice to urban poverty, street crime, and limited life options, and a criminal justice system that sweeps up young men of color.”

Read more about the case in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette.

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Vinni BelfioreSong Lyrics and the First Amendment