Ark. court rules student’s rap lyrics are not protected speech

ARKANSAS — The state supreme court ruled Thursday thata high school student’s rap lyrics constituted a "true threat"of physical violence, upholding a juvenile court’s criminal convictionof the student.

Blake Jones wrote the rap song and gave it to fellow studentAllison Arnold during a class in February 2001 after Jones becameupset with Arnold, the decision states. A few minutes after readingthe lyrics, Arnold asked to leave the class and took the songto the principal’s office where administrators and police confrontedJones, according to court documents.

The court based its decision on another case from Arkansas,Doe v. Pulaski County Special School District, which wasvacated in November by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the EighthCircuit. A three-member panel of the federal appeals court hadruled in August that the lyrics student Josh Mahan wrote abouta friend did not amount to a true threat. In that case, the EighthCircuit used a five-step test to determine whether the threatwas real or exaggerated.

The Arkansas Supreme Court used the same test in its decision,but found the circumstances were vastly different. Mahan, whowrote the song at home, was punished by the school district afterthe lyrics were stolen and given to his friend. Jones presentedhis rap song directly to Arnold, and according to court documents,had been angry that their friendship had cooled. In addition,Arnold expressed an immediate fear that was not present in theMahan’s case.

"[Arnold] was intensely frightened and upset, by everyone’saccount, and she told the attending police officer that she believedJones was capable of carrying out the threat because he had acriminal record and knew where her family lived," wrote JusticeRobert Brown in the court’s decision.

Brown continued, "The lyrics which Jones composed indicatedthat he was mad at Arnold, and he placed no conditions on hisintended conduct."

Besides arguing that the First Amendment protected Jones’ speech,his lawyers also contended that Jones said, "Don’t take thisserious," and only gave Arnold the lyrics because she hadasked to read them. In her testimony, Arnold denied both claims.

Jones’ lawyers said he often wrote lyrics, modeling them aftersongs by rapper Eminem. The ones he gave to Arnold, however, expressedviolence. "My hatred and aggression will go towards you,you better run bitch, cuz I can’t control what I do. I’ll murderyou before you can think twice, cut you up and use you for decorationto look nice," the lyrics stated.

Jones was appealing his felony conviction for making terroristic threats. Washington County Circuit Judge Stacey Zimmerman sentencedhim to seven days in a juvenile detention center, 24 months ofsupervised probation and ordered him not to interact with Arnold.

Even though the court upheld the sentence ordered by Zimmerman,the justices disagreed with her reasoning. The supreme court said she erred by classifying the lyrics within the "fightingwords" exception to the First Amendment instead of labeling them as a true threat.

Cite: 2002 WL 59066 (Ark. 2002)

View the Arkansas Supreme Court’s decision at the SPLC Report story about the Eighth Circuit’s decision in Doe v. Pulaski County Special School District.