Thursday, August 7, 2014
In a closely watched case with First Amendment implications, the New Jersey Supreme Court in State v. Skinner held in an unanimous opinion that violent rap lyrics, written by a defendant before the events that led to his indictment, may not be admitted at his criminal trial as evidence of motive and intent.
The court's opinion takes the opportunity to explicitly outline the First Amendment issue:
The New Jersey Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) appears in this case as amicus curiae on behalf of defendant. The ACLU asserts that defendant’s rap lyrics are a form of artistic expression and thus are entitled to heightened protection under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, Paragraph 6 of the New Jersey Constitution. The ACLU emphasizes that defendant’s lyrics are not akin to a diary and therefore contain limited probative value. Moreover, because rap lyrics are often a vehicle for social and political commentary, the ALCU argues that admitting defendant’s lyrics would run the risk of chilling otherwise valuable speech. Accordingly, the ACLU urges the establishment of a strict guideline against the admissibility of expressive works in a criminal trial, in light of the First Amendment protections ordinarily afforded to such works. It urges that their admissibility should be limited to situations clearly indicating that the author engaged in the crimes about which he or she has written. In the ACLU’s view, to hold otherwise would unduly discourage, or even punish, lawful expression.
[Update: The ACLU brief is available here].
However, the remainder of the opinion does not explicitly engage with the First Amendment or free speech doctrine. Nevertheless, the court's ruling is infused with free speech perspectives. After articulating its holding under the NJ rules of evidence that "violent, profane, and disturbing rap lyrics that defendant wrote constituted highly prejudicial evidence against him that bore little or no probative value on any motive or intent behind the attempted murder offense with which he was charged," the court notes that the "use of the inflammatory contents of a person’s form of artistic self-expression as proof of the writer’s character, motive, or intent must be approached with caution."
The difficulty in identifying probative value in fictional or other forms of artistic self-expressive endeavors is that one cannot presume that, simply because an author has chosen to write about certain topics, he or she has acted in accordance with those views. One would not presume that Bob Marley, who wrote the well-known song “I Shot the Sheriff,” actually shot a sheriff, or that Edgar Allan Poe buried a man beneath his floorboards, as depicted in his short story “The Tell-Tale Heart,” simply because of their respective artistic endeavors on those subjects. Defendant’s lyrics should receive no different treatment. In sum, we reject the proposition that probative evidence about a charged offense can be found in an individual’s artistic endeavors absent a strong nexus between specific details of the artistic composition and the circumstances of the offense for which the evidence is being adduced.
Again, while the rationale is firmly embedded in the evidentiary rules, the First Amendment perspectives are evident.
[image: Bob Marley via]