A dispute over rap lyrics dropped Tuesday before Pennsylvania's highest court, where justices will have to decide whether they constitute a criminal threat to police or amount to protected speech under the First Amendment.
The state Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Jamal Knox, who served time in state prison for the song he recorded after being arrested on drug charges.
Questions from the justices focused on whether Knox intended it as a true threat to officers and whether the reaction to the song by police is relevant to the criminal charges.
Knox's lawyer, Mikhail Pappas, told the court the case "involves very strong emotions," and called it "a tremendous opportunity to ensure that speech-based prosecutions do not affront the First Amendment."
He said threats in rap "are ubiquitous" and called Knox was an established artist.
Pappas suggested it was police who notified the media about the video almost immediately, undercutting the notion that officers were frightened by its message.
Frank Nepa, an assistant district attorney in Allegheny County, argued that Knox's defenders have generally avoided talking about what the lyrics actually say.
"I can tell you in the Allegheny County district attorney's office, we're all for cathartic release, we're all for free expression," Nepa said. "You can't say the things that Mr. Knox says in the video. It crosses the line. It goes too far."
The song title is a vulgar three-word phrase that ends, "the Police." It includes the lines: "I got my Glock and best believe dog gonna bring the pump out and I'm hittin' your chest," as well as, "Let's kill these cops 'cause they don't do us no good."
The video taunts by name two officers involved in Knox's drug arrest and mentions Richard Poplawski, who is on death row in Pennsylvania for killing three Pittsburgh police officers in 2009.
Nepa said the law does not necessarily require a "direct communication" with the subject to amount to the crime of making terroristic threats.
Knox, 23, was charged after an officer in 2012 found a YouTube video of Knox performing the song under the name Mayhem Mal of the Ghetto Superstar Committee. He was later convicted of witness intimidation, making terroristic threats and conspiracy and served time in state prison before being released about a year ago.
Knox's lawyers have contended he was not trying to intimidate the officers and did not intend the video to be posted online.
"This is a contextual blend of perhaps the most salient domestic social issue of our time," a Knox defense lawyer wrote in a court filing. "In this context and at this time in the history of our nation and commonwealth, the question of whether Knox's conduct is protected by the First Amendment or is punishable by criminal sanction hardly could be of more substantial importance."
His attorneys have said Knox acknowledges he wrote and recorded the song but has denied leaking it online.