Vonte Skinner is one of the many amateur rap artists whose lyrics have been used as evidence against them in US court cases. Skinner was charged and convicted of attempted murder by a New Jersey court in 2008. Part of the evidence submitted by the prosecution, and which led to his conviction, was a notebook full of scrawled rap lyrics that was found in Skinner’s car. This decision was overturned by the New Jersey appeals court in 2012 which deemed the lyrics inadmissible. Due to a split decision at the appellate court, the prosecution was able to take the case to the New Jersey Supreme Court which last week finally ruled in Skinner’s favour.
In a unanimous verdict, the court upheld fundamental principles of freedom of expression, denounced the state’s prejudicial use of song lyrics and upheld the right to be offensive:
‘To be sure, writing rap lyrics – even disturbingly graphic lyrics, like the defendant’s – is not a crime. Nor is it a bad act or a wrong to engage in the act of writing about unpalatable subjects, including inflammatory subjects such as depicting events or lifestyles that may be condemned as anti-social, mean-spirited, or amoral.’
As argued on spiked in April, the creation of a legal culture in which lyrics, poetry, writings or any other form of artistic expression can be used against the author in a court of law could seriously inhibit artistic freedom, limiting what artists feel they can create. The Supreme Court justices used their own examples to underline the absurdity of using fictional materials to aid prosecutions:
‘One cannot presume that, simply because an author has chosen to write about certain topics, he or she has acted in accordance with those views. One would not presume that Bob Marley, who wrote the well-known song “I Shot the Sheriff”, actually shot a sheriff, or that Edgar Allan Poe buried a man beneath his floorboards, as depicted in his short story “The Tell-Tale Heart”.’