HARRISBURG, Pa. — Pennsylvania’s highest court is reviewing the conviction of a Pittsburgh man for making threats against police in a rap song after he was charged with drug offenses.
The state’s Supreme Court on Monday said it would take up an appeal by Jamal Knox, who argues his song, which was briefly posted online, is protected by the right to free speech. Knox wants the court to set aside his convictions for witness intimidation and making terroristic threats.
“Just because a police officer arrests you, doesn’t mean you are stripped of any free speech ability to say, ‘Wait a minute, that officer did me wrong, and here’s why I think so,’” Knox’s lawyer Patrick K. Nightingale said Tuesday.
The Allegheny County district attorney’s office, which declined comment for this story, told Superior Court last year the song “was not mere political hyperbole but, rather, the sort of ‘true threat’ that is not protected by the First Amendment.”
The case began with an April 2012 traffic stop in the city’s East Liberty section, when Knox, now 22, drove away after telling an officer he did not have a valid driver’s license. Following a chase in which he hit a parked car and a fence, police found 15 bags of heroin and $1,500 on Knox and a stolen, loaded gun in the vehicle.
Seven months later, an officer came across the video online, performed by Knox under the name “Mayhem Mal” of the “Ghetto Superstar Committee” with co-defendant Rashee Beasley - and accompanied by photos of them both. Knox and Beasley posted another video in which they said they wrote the song.
The title is a vulgar three-word phrase that ends, “the Police.”
A transcript shows the lyrics taunt two officers involved in Knox’s arrest and bring up the name of Richard Poplawski, who’s currently on death row for the shootings deaths of three Pittsburgh police officers in 2009.
The song starts with “If y’all want beef we can beef/I got artillery to shake the ... streets,” and uses the two officers’ last names. A verse sung by Beasley says he has a “clip filled to the tippy top wit some cop killas,” and boasts that “like Poplawski I’m strapped naste.”
Knox’s lawyers argued that he did not post it online himself nor did he intend for it to be published. The video was taken down from YouTube after three days.
The two officers identified in the song were provided with additional security protections.
Knox’s lawyers argued to Superior Court that the question of whether the song is protected free speech or a criminal threat “could hardly be of more substantial importance; it is perhaps the most salient issue of our time.”
They said Knox’s objective in creating the song, which they described as “political hyperbole-laced,” was not to intimidate the police officers. Rather, they said, he was trying to engage in therapy for anger management, to express political speech in protest of social injustice, to spread news to the community and to advance his artistic career.
A judge convicted Knox, in relation to the video, of two counts of witness intimidation and two counts of terroristic threats. His sentence on all counts, including drug charges, was two to six years in prison. He was paroled from state prison last month.
Prosecutors have dismissed the argument that Knox and Beasley were engaged in works along the lines of Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes.
“He does not ... cite to any works of Ms. Angelou or Mr. Hughes - or any other artist, for that matter - in which they threatened to murder in his home a named police officer who had a pending a case against them,” the DA’s office told Superior Court.