PA Supreme Court Hears Oral Arguments on Whether Rap Lyrics Can Be Considered Terroristic Threats

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By Amy Kerlin, Staff Writer

Are rap lyrics protected by the First Amendment? Can limitations be placed on artistic expressions? On Tuesday, November 28, 2017, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court heard oral arguments regarding the extent of free speech protection of lyrics in a rap song.

In 2014, two Pittsburgh area men were sentenced to prison for charges including terroristic threats of two City of Pittsburgh police officers from an amateur music video posted to YouTube and Facebook.[1] The rap video posted on social media contained inflammatory lyrics including the officers’ names and reference to Richard Poplawski, the convicted murderer of three City of Pittsburgh police officers in 2009.[2] In the defendants’ original criminal case, Common Pleas President Judge Manning determined the rap lyrics were attempts at intimidating the two police officers that arrested the defendants.[3] Jamal Knox, one of the defendants who wrote and performed the rap song, appealed the First Amendment issue to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

During the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s oral argument on the First Amendment issue, questions focused on Knox’s intent behind the release of the rap song and whether the police department’s reaction to the song was relevant to the criminal charges.[4] Knox’s intent behind the lyrics and his knowledge of whether the lyrics would be viewed as a threat are crucial to the determination of whether or not the lyrics may be considered as a criminal terroristic threat.

In 2015, the United States Supreme Court in Elonis v. U.S. determined that the author of an online threat must post the statement with the purpose and intent to issue the threat or with knowledge that the statement would be viewed as a threat.[5] In Elonis, a Pennsylvania man appealed a four-year prison sent for his posting of a threatening message on Facebook about his wife.[6]

The Knox First Amendment case raises the issue of whether lyrics of a rap song are afforded full First Amendment protection.  This case begs the question of whether criminal defendants are allowed to criticize the actions of police officers that arrest them.  If the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rules against the defendant and determines the lyrics are not protected, the question then arises of how many more limitations can be imposed on other forms of art. Will poetry or a theater production then be actionable? What about the next murder mystery book or political satire?




[1] Adam Brandolph, Rappers who threatened Pittsburgh police sentenced to prison, Pittsburgh Tribune Review, Feb. 6, 2014,,

[2] Liz Navratil, Pa. Supreme Court weighing if rapper’s words were a crime or protected free speech, Pittsburgh Post Gazette, November 28, 2017,

[3] Brandolph, supra note 1.

[4] Mark Scolforo, Pennsylvania Supreme Court case weighs whether anti-police rap lyrics constitute threat, WTAE, Nov. 28, 2017,

[5] Elonis v. U.S., 135 S.Ct. 2001 (2015).

[6] Chris Moody, This is what a Supreme Court justice sounds like when he recites violent rap lyrics, CNN, Dec. 5, 2014,



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