After Killer Mike wrote a powerful op-ed lobbying against the justice system’s use of rap lyrics as admissible evidence, the Supreme Court gathered in Washington, D.C. Monday to hear the case that pushed this First Amendment issue back in the spotlight. Exhibit A: Eminem. The Detroit rapper was quoted extensively as Elonis Vs. United States began its arguments.
The song Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. recited to his fellow Supreme Court judges was “’97 Bonnie and Clyde,” a Slim Shady LP murder-fantasy where the rapper’s character and his young daughter, an unknowing accomplice, puts his wife’s body in “a nice bed for mommy at the bottom of the lake.”
The song parallels Eminem’s own personal struggles and custody battles with his ex-wife at the time, and it perfectly illuminated the fine line between criminal threats and Freedom of Speech-protected art that is the backbone of this Supreme Court case.
After reciting the dark lyrics, Roberts asked, “Could that be prosecuted?” Anthony Elonis was sentenced to 44 months in prison after being convicted of a federal law that makes it a crime to communicate “any threat to injure the person of another,” the New York Times writes.
In Elonis’ social media posts, he warned of “making a name for myself” and stated “Hell hath no fury like a crazy man in a kindergarten class.” At his trial, his ex-wife said she was “extremely afraid” for her life and her children’s lives. Elonis himself claims he was quoting rap lyrics.
“This sounds like a road map for threatening a spouse and getting away with it,” Justice Samuel Alito said. “You put it in rhyme and you put some stuff about the Internet on it and you say, ‘I’m an aspiring rap artist.’ And so then you are free from prosecution.”
Much of the Supreme Court’s debate focused on context: The venue in which Eminem delivered his lyrics, in rap form on a CD, wouldn’t be misconstrued as actual threats, but does posting threatening lyrics on Facebook place too much onus on the reader to determine whether the danger is real or not?
In the case of Elonis, after receiving a “protection from abuse” (PFA) order from the court on behalf of his ex-wife due to his posts, he questioned – in a later post he knew she would see – whether a folded up PFA order in her pocket would stop a bullet, the Hollywood Reporter writes. However, other posts on Elonis’ Facebook share the disclaimer, “I do this for me; it’s a therapeutic.”