Antavio Johnson, a 20-year old rapper from Lakeland, Florida, was sentenced to two years in prison on July 24 for threatening a pair of police officers in his song, “Kill Me a Cop.”
Johnson, who was already on probation stemming from cocaine possession charges, received his sentence after pleading no contest to two counts of corruption by threat against a public servant under Chapter 838.021 of the Florida Criminal Code.
In the first verse of “Kill Me a Cop”, Johnson raps: “If Officer Bailey care at all/ Get my timing wrong/ Im’ma be puttin’ one in his dome/ Mr. Officer, Mr. Officer/ Try me on the wrong day/ And I’m offin’ ya …” In his next verse, Johnson makes a similar threat against another officer, rapping: “If Officer Campbell/ The Wonder Woman/ Get my timing wrong/ Im’ma be puttin’ one in her dome/ Mrs. Officer, Mrs. Officer/ Try me on the wrong day/ And I’m offin’ ya …” Johnson concludes both verses with: “Call me crazy but I think I fell in love with the sound/ Of hearing the dispatcher saying, ‘Officer Down’ …” You can listen to the full song here.
A handful of lawyers in central Florida have joined the American Civil Liberties Union in looking into Johnson’s case. While it remains unclear whether they will take up Johnson’s cause, any legal action on the rapper’s behalf will require yet another reexamination of just how much protection the First Amendment provides free speech when it is delivered via threatening song lyrics.
Prior Supreme Court decisions have established that the freedom of speech guaranteed under the First Amendment is not absolute. For instance, speech amounting to solicitation of crime or conspiracy is outside the scope of constitutional protection according to Konigsberg v. State Bar, 366 U.S. 36 (1961). Also, speech which is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action, and which is likely to incite or produce such action, is outside the scope of First Amendment protection under Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444-448 (1969). Furthermore, the constitutional freedom for speech does not immunize “speech used as an integral part of conduct in violation of a valid criminal statute.” Giboney v. Empire Storage Co., 336 U.S. 490 (1949).
Of course, Giboney seems to represent the strongest rebuke to any constitutional challenge Johnson may mount over the state of Florida’s punishment of his speech. From this writer’s viewpoint, the specificity of Johnson’s threats will make it very difficult for him to successfully assert protection under the First Amendment.