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Threats, Suggestive Language, "Art," and the 1st Amendment

I love living in Florida, 'cause I rarely have to use my imagination when I ask "what if..."

So here's a scenario for you: A 20-year-old Lakeland, FL, man, a wannabe rapper, posts a song called "Kill Me a Cop" on the MySpace page of a "homemade" record label operated by an acquaintance. The song mentions two active duty Lakeland cops by name, along with a local sheriff's deputy and police dog who were killed in the line of duty. A gang unit officer from Lakeland, trawling the Web, comes across the song and begins investigating. A short time later, the man, Antavio Johnson, already in jail on a probation violation, is criminally charged with "corruption by threat of public servant" . He later pleads no contest. He is now serving a 2-year prison term on that plea, because the actions that constituted "corruption by threat" were his posting for public consumption a song, whose lyrics pointedly said that he fantacized about killing police officers.

Setting aside whatever distaste you have for rap tunes in general, and saving for a later date the deep discussion of Johnson's intellect, what do you think of the charges and conviction?

I have lots of cop friends. I have cop relatives. I have cop professional associates. And I think it's despicable for anyone to target cops for violence. There's no excuse for it. On the other hand, giving cops special consideration isn't necessary. We could substitute "cops" for teachers, reporters, homemakers, preachers, women, kids, men with one leg, women with no arms, etc. And it would still be despicable to target that group with murder.

BUT (you had to know that was coming), what if I told you this young man's friends and family say that he wrote that song several years ago around the time he was 16 or 17, after a run-in with a couple of Lakeland cops, whom he felt had picked on him? Reportedly, it was the same two officers he named in the song lyrics. But I haven't confirmed that. Would that revelation strengthen or weaken your position?

My immediate reaction to hearing this story was this guy sounds like a dumbass, who needed to get smacked "upside his head," as my grandmother would say. But I'm not sure what he did warrants two years in jail.

His friends and family could be lying to try to help get him out of this. But if they're telling the truth about this, Johnson has had a pretty long time to try to act on the song if he wanted to.

I find everything about this distasteful, but I think Johnson was just an idiot who was venting. Surely, he isn't the first artist who has written and/or performed words that constituted a threat. What about singers who've bragged in lyrics about their drug use, or about sexual exploits whose descriptions sometimes sound dangerously close to assault?

I've heard politicians make physical threats against other politicians - threats they later said were jokes or venting of pent-up anger - on radio shows that are broadcast to hundreds of thousands of people. Why weren't they charged.

Constitutional experts are saying that the Johnson was a knucklehead but that saying he wanted to kill cops in a very bad song was not enough to charge him with a crime.

I'm guessing this only went as far as it did, becaus he mentioned real cops by name. Had he kept his threat vague and broadly generalized, I'll bet he'd still be an unknown wannabe, instead of an incarcerated wannabe.

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BobG

"My immediate reaction to hearing this story was this guy sounds like a dumbass, who needed to get smacked "upside his head," as my grandmother would say. But I'm not sure what he did warrants two years in jail."

100% agreement there; being an asshole is not illegal.

class factotum

This is ridiculous in the same way "hate" crimes are ridiculous. He was charged for what he thought, not what he did. Seems to be a first amend case to me. Where is the ACLU?

(RE: Hate crimes. Isn't someone just as dead if he is murdered because he and the murderer had disagreements over a gambling debt as opposed to because he is A,B, or C?)

DJ Black Adam

2 years seems kinda stiff to me. I guess when all the Neo-Nazis are arrested who have threatened the First family, I'll see the point....

Jeni Hill Ertmer

Boy, Hell of a dilemma you've written about here!
First off, I'm a lot like you in that I have "issues" shall we say with Rap Music, for openers. Now music and "art form" are the same and different at the same time. We can all acknowledge, whether we like rap or not, that it is indeed "music" but whether it is an "art form" ah, there's the rub. At least in my opinion. Some will say it is a high art form, others definitely will have a much, much lower opinion of it. Now, that's one aspect of this case. That he wrote and recorded said song, naming names -boy, that's a tough nut to crack there and deal with. But all the same it is no different, ultimately, than athletes who make various threats toward each other -i.e. Ali for one, with his poems and such about various opponents -or as you cited with politicians and various others who make open or veiled threats to others and yet, are never taken to task for those things -or at least not in the way this guy was. And then there IS that pesky old First Amendment too that has to stick its head into the foray. We do have the right to our thoughts, and as such, to our words as well, do we not?
Much as I may not like, appreciate, enjoy Rap, (and I do feel some of it is a causative agent at times to put ideas perhaps in the heads of impressionable people) and that he named specific people -the police officers -in this piece was not exactly the smartest thing to do, I still do not believe that the crime and the time are either one, fitting here. I don't like that people harbor these thoughts but also, not knowing every single individual all over the place who might have thoughts like this, does jail lessen those ideas? How do we curb things like this -from the thought on through to the word and from there, to where others may actually take action from those thoughts and ideas? I have no answer there and I doubt you do either. But ultimately, in this case, I do believe this guy was unfairly dealt with overall.

Wavemancali

The first amendment is misunderstood by a lot of people. But the 2 clear exceptions to freedom of speech that are always used in teaching about it are, you can't yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater and you can't use "fighting words".

"I'm going to kill you" tends to lie in the range of "fighting words" to me.

The above quote is an example only, it may not be in the song, I was using it as an example, but the song IS titled, "Kill me a cop".

Murder is not art, threats are not art, inciting a riot is not art. Setting any of the above to music, doesn't make it any more artistic.

Pamela

I am reminded of the guy who opened fire on all those women at the LA Fitness last week. (three or four dead?)

He'd put some stuff out on the internet, too.

Ole

And at the same time we have people like Glen Beck on national TV openly talking about killing elected politicians... and that's considered "patriotism".

BTW to express your emotions through a piece of art (a song) does not necessarily make you an "idiot". Not as long as it stays as an artistic expression of emotions. To pretend you're a journalist, on the other hand, and then act like an idiot, spreading lies AND incitement to violence, does make you a dangerous lunatic who should at least be fired.

A black teenager makes a song. He goes to jail. A white lunatic pretends to do "journalism" while inciting violence, he gets a million dollar salary.

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