All Commentary
Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Art Under Attack: Rap and Free Speech

Ambitious prosecutors are threatening artists

Free speech has been in the news a lot recently. Debates about the “limits of speech” abound on social media, cable news, and the blogosphere, particularly in light of an award for courage given to Charlie Hebdo and an attack on an exhibition for cartoons of Muhammad in Texas.

The usual suspects are calling for the suppression of “offensive” or “blasphemous” expression, but there’s plenty of censorious instincts to go around.

Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician who spoke at the Muhammad event, has called for the Koran to be banned.

The French government has arrested dozens of people for “hate speech” for allegedly applauding the massacre at Charlie Hebdo

Debates over restrictions on political speech, via “campaign finance” laws, are perennially at issue.

Censorship on college campuses has grown extreme and ridiculous.

But probably the least-known target in the United States today is in fact that old favorite whipping boy, hip-hop and gangsta rap, with its scary lyrics, tattooed singers, and purported associations with gang violence.

Last year, San Diego rapper Brandon Duncan, aka Tiny Doo, was charged with conspiring in a string of local shootings — not because he committed the crimes, helped whoever did, or even knew about them, but because prosecutors said that his music “promoted” gang violence and that he “benefited” from the crimes by rapping about violence.

Thanks to some extraordinarily vague language in the conspiracy law, that was enough to indict him. The charges carried a mandatory minimum of 25 years.

Prosecutors pointed to his album cover: “We’re not just talking about an album of anything, of love songs… there is a revolver with bullets.” A picture of a revolver — scary stuff.

In March, after spending months in jail, unable to meet the $1 million bail imposed on him, a judge dismissed the charges because of lack of evidence, album art notwithstanding.

But Duncan’s is not an isolated case, says Paul Detrick of Reason TV. Criminologists have documented the widespread use of lyrics and art to help charge small-time rappers with gang-related crimes. Often grand juries are so impressed by violent-sounding words, prosecutors don’t need to follow them up with actual evidence.

Detrick explores the phenomenon here:

  • Daniel Bier is the executive editor of The Skeptical Libertarian.