Anti-police rap ruling a victory for Pittsburgh cops

Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirms conviction for witness intimidation and terroristic threats against police officers contained in a YouTube video


On August 21, 2018, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed the criminal convictions of Jamal Knox for threatening to kill two Pittsburgh police officers and witness intimidation by means of a “gangsta rap” video posted on the internet. Knox’s First Amendment “protected speech” claims were rejected by the court.

The facts

In April 2012, Pittsburgh police officer Michael Kosko made a routine traffic stop on a vehicle operated by Jamal Knox. Rashee Beasley was a front seat passenger in the vehicle. During questioning, Knox sped away and crashed his vehicle. Both occupants fled on foot but were quickly apprehended.

Jamal Knox’s rap song’s lyrics contained a reference to Richard Poplawski who murdered three Pittsburgh officers in 2009. In this April 8, 2009, file photo family and officials pay their respects to those three Pittsburgh police officers. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)
Jamal Knox’s rap song’s lyrics contained a reference to Richard Poplawski who murdered three Pittsburgh officers in 2009. In this April 8, 2009, file photo family and officials pay their respects to those three Pittsburgh police officers. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

Police found 15 bags of heroin and a large sum of cash on Knox and a loaded stolen firearm on the front seat driver’s side floor of the vehicle. Knox gave officers a false name, but Detective Daniel Zeltner recognized Knox at the scene and provided his true identity.

Both Detective Zeltner and Officer Kosko were scheduled to testify against Knox at upcoming legal proceedings. While charges were pending, Knox wrote and recorded a video of a rap song titled “F---k the Police.” Both Knox and Beasley appeared in the video in still photos posing as if firing weapons. The video was uploaded by a third party to YouTube and appeared on a Facebook page believed to be connected to Beasley.

The rap song’s lyrics expressed marked hatred toward Pittsburgh police. The lyrics described the killing of police informants and police officers. Moreover, the lyrics referred to Detective Zeltner and Officer Kosko by name and suggested that Knox and Beasley were aware of when their shifts end and that they could become violent crime victims in their homes. The lyrics also contained a reference to a Richard Poplawski who murdered three Pittsburgh officers in 2009. In addition, the video contained background sounds of gunfire and police sirens.

Pittsburgh police officials, including Zeltner and Kosko, were alerted to the video. Both officers watched it and became concerned for their safety and the safety of their families and fellow officers. One said he was “shocked” at what he saw and heard. The other found it to be “very upsetting.” A security detail was authorized for the detective and extra personnel were assigned to deal with “the threat.” (The opinion did not disclose whether a security detail was provided for Officer Kosko.)

After the video became known to the police, Knox was arrested and charged with making terroristic threats and a separate charge of witness intimidation. During the bench trial that followed, the threatening video was introduced into evidence for the court. Knox argued during trial that the video was protected speech and a conviction would violate the First Amendment. The court found him guilty of both charges and rejected his First Amendment claims.

Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling on the jamal knox case

Knox filed an appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which in a 5-2 opinion, rejected Knox’s First Amendment protected speech claims and affirmed his conviction.

The court made the following points and observations in affirming Knox’s conviction:

  • It is a bedrock principle of First Amendment law that the government may not prohibit speech simply because society finds that speech offensive or disagreeable. However, the court stated that, “Nevertheless, expressive rights are not absolute.”
  • The court explained that “certain types of speech can be regulated if they are likely to inflict unacceptable harm … [and] [o]f particular relevance to this case, speech which threatens unlawful violence can subject the speaker to criminal sanction.”
  • Accordingly, the court ruled that consistent with First Amendment principles, the “Constitution allows states to criminalize threatening speech which is specifically intended to terrorize or intimidate.” Secondly, in deciding whether the speaker acted with such specific intent, the actual content of the speech and the circumstances of its utterance should be evaluated.
  • The court reviewed the lyrics of the video and observed that they not only “primarily portray violence toward police” generally for interfering with Knox’s drug dealing activities but in an even more threatening manner, specifically refer to Detective Zeltner and Officer Kosko by name.
  • The court observed that Knox “proceeds to describe in graphic terms how he intends to kill those officers. In this way, the lyrics are both threatening and highly personalized to the victims.”
  • The court also tied the threatening lyrics to the recent circumstances of the victim officers’ interaction with Knox and Beasley involving their drug arrest, the seizure of drugs, money, and a loaded firearm and their expected testimony in upcoming legal proceedings.
  • The court took note of the victim officers’ reaction to the video and observed, “The victims developed substantial concern for their safety and took measures – such as … moving to a new residence, [and] obtaining a security detail – to avoid becoming victims of violence.”
  • The court concluded by specifically rejecting Knox’s claim that his video was merely “gangsta rap” intended only as “art, poetry, and fantasy” protected by the First Amendment. The court explained that if it accepted the validity of this claim, “we would … be interpreting the Constitution to provide blanket protection for threats, however severe, so long as they are expressed within that … [gangsta rap] style.”

Conclusion

Jamal Knox apparently thought that his specific and deadly threats against two Pittsburgh police officers could be couched in musical lyrics with impunity and that this would insulate him from criminal responsibility for their content. He was sadly (for him) mistaken. This clear and unequivocal opinion from Pennsylvania’s High Court demonstrates that Knox’s attempt to wrap his deadly commentary in the mantle of First Amendment protection ended in total failure. This case will hopefully stand as a significant guidepost for other courts who may be confronted with similar cases in the future.

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