True Threats, Free Speech, and Government Trust: the case of Cameron D’Ambrosio

The Center for Rights, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, is running a campaign to raise awareness of a legal case in Boston that seems to disregard basic First Amendment protections. (The Center for Rights is the 501(c)3 sister of Fight for the Future.)

As usual, the defendant in a free speech case happens to be unsympathetic, and the speech is poor taste, but the First Amendment doesn’t let you throw unsympathetic kids in prison for poor taste.

From the facts recounted by the organization, a teenager named Cameron D’Ambrosio posted a rap song on Facebook that bragged he would be more famous than the Boston Marathon bombers and apparently criticized the White House. As a result of those lyrics, the kid has been in jail for a month and is facing 20 years in jail for “communicating a terrorist threat.”

First Amendment Would Protect Rapping this Song Lyric

I haven’t had a chance to review all the material out there, but everything I’ve read suggests that the First Amendment protects this kind of speech and the kid shouldn’t be sitting in a jail cell.

According to Fight for the Future, the rap line was fairly harmless: “Fuck a Boston bominb wait till u see the shit I do, I’ma be famous rapping.” Some media reports apparently left off the word “rapping,” suggesting that he wanted to become “famous” through his own bombings.

If he said he’d be famous rapping, there is no way that’s a threat, even if it’s a tasteless comparison.

If the rap song suggested he’d become famous bombing stuff, I am not totally sure how that is a threat and not the standard stuff of rap songs. I know that gun violence doesn’t trigger the same angst as bomb-violence (even if there’s more gun violence), but rappers say tasteless violent things all the time–we all know the expression “bust a cap in his ass” for a reason, and that reason is excellent rap music. We all know Eminem raps about killing an ex wife named Kim, and has an ex wife named Kim… Rap music is full of references to violence and slaying rival sucker MCs, usually with guns, only sometimes with bombs apparently.

In light of the obvious context, the legal analysis would probably begin and end with the Supreme Court case of Watts v. United States. That case stands for the principle that political speech is protected but a “true threat” is not.  In Watts, a Vietnam protestor said that if he were drafted to fight in the war, and made to carry a rifle, “the first man I want to get in my sights is L. B. J.” That was ruled protected political speech because it wasn’t a “true threat.” The analysis turns largely on the notion that a reasonable listener would not consider it a true threat of violence.

We do not believe that the kind of political hyperbole indulged in by petitioner fits within that statutory term. For we must interpret the language Congress chose “against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.” The language of the political arena, like the language used in labor disputes, is often vituperative, abusive, and inexact. We agree with petitioner that his only offense here was “a kind of very crude offensive method of stating a political opposition to the President.” Taken in context, and regarding the expressly conditional nature of the statement and the reaction of the listeners, we do not see how it could be interpreted otherwise.

The rap song here appears to also be general political (or cultural or counter-cultural) speech and not a true threat of violence.

Government Trust At Stake

I emailed a few First Amendment scholars to see what they thought of the facts of the case. One told me she was troubled and asked how she could help. The other said, effectively, that “the government must know something we do not,” and is otherwise acting “insane,” though perhaps not for the first time. Around the same time I received the email from the second scholar (the one who assumed the government “knew something”), I read an email from a friend explaining that he had been on a grand jury and the jury would indict often based on the idea that the prosecution “must know” something they couldn’t tell the jury.  And these two bits of information reminded me of what several people told me in the run-up to the Iraq War, when there was some doubt we would find weapons of mass destruction based on the available evidence. People would say, “the government must know something they’re not sharing with us.” In short, just trust the government.

I am not so sure American citizens are going to continue “just trusting” their government without evidence in light of recent history, but “government distrust” is generally considered a core principle of the First Amendment in cases such as this one.

If the prosecution has evidence of a planned bombing, beyond an apparently misinterpreted lyric, the prosecution should make that as public as possible.

Despite the alarm after the terrible bombing, this completely unrelated kid has been in jail for over a month and faces 20 years in prison apparently for what the Supreme Court would call a very “crude” and “offensive” expression, not what seems to be a true threat.

Note: I am on the Board of Directors of the Center for Rights.

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