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What’s in a threat? Rap lyrics and the Supreme Court

How many times do you think Eminem lyrics have been used in a court case? Beyond the pending suit against the Marshall Mathers LP 2 for ‘hate crimes against nostalgia’, I’m guessing between zero and none. That didn’t stop an attorney in the US Supreme Court from rattling them off in defense of his client in proceedings the other day.

The case in question involves 31-year-old Anthony Elonis, appealing a conviction he received in 2011 for making threats against his estranged wife, who has a protection from abuse order against him, over Facebook.

You might say he’s… Forever Elonis?

His attorney, however, is arguing that the ‘threats’ that he posted to his public profile were in fact rap lyrics of Elonis’ own invention and posted as some kind of cathartic experience. His attorney has compared his lyrics to those of one Marshall Mathers, for which they should find him in contempt of good taste.

Fact: If you start posting self-penned rap lyrics as dreadful and generic as shit like ‘there’s one way to love you and a thousand ways to kill you’ then you should stop aspiring to be a rapper immediately or at least read a book to improve your word game. You’re also a miserable, attention-seeking twat who probably has a walk-in fedora closet and deserves to have nobody following your social media presence.

But are you a criminal?

This is what has divided the Supreme Court: whether statements like these can be legally defined as threats when in the context of social media postings or rap lyrics.

You can see why the precedent that could be set here has the potential to be huge.

Certainly if Elonis had waltzed right up to his wife in person and spat that nonsense line at her it would be considered a threat without question. His defense argues that both Facebook rants and rap music are full of hyperbole though and that anyone who doesn’t live in a completely isolated tribal community in the 21st century should understand this.

Certainly nobody convicted or even arrested any of the litany of rappers in the 90s who threatened to kick or even kill the living shit out of each other in their lyrics. As we detailed in another recent case dragging hip hop into the mix, just about every single person who has ever called themselves a gangsta rapper would be behind bars for violent threats made towards each other, sometimes making no bones about calling each other out, in their music.


Apparently not threatening even though I’ve just voided my bowels

And, until now, it has been accepted that lyrics, no matter how offensive, violent or threatening they are, are protected under the First Amendment. Eminem got away with albums full of songs about killing his wife. The defense pointed specifically to lyrics from the song ’97 Bonnie And Clyde, in which Em details, in a narrative to his daughter, disposing the corpse of her mother at the bottom of a lake. The defense argues that if Elonis conviction isn’t overturned, that it would ‘impose five years of felony liability any time the understanding of the speaker and the listener gets crossed’, which would have far-reaching implications, possibly even for rappers like Slim Shady.

The problem is that Elonis is hardly a famous rapper with a legion of fans who understand the context of his lyrics like Eminem, as the prosecution has argued in this case. Facebook is a public forum, sure, but it’s not like he was up on a stage spouting threatening lines towards his wife purely for the purpose of entertainment. He was posting them in a forum typically viewed only by family and friends, and certainly viewable by his wife.

The prosecution even defended one’s right to rap artistry as a form of entertainment protected under the First Amendment, but that posting statuses like ‘fold up that PFA and put it in your pocket, will it stop a bullet?’ and knowing that his wife will read it is completely separate from being a rap artist, regardless of one’s claim to be, and is crossing the line.


Seriously? I couldn’t find a picture of Elonis, but with ‘lyrics’ like that, I’m guessing he looks less Eminem and more whatever this is.

Thankfully it looks like the constitutional rights of our favourite rappers to make badass music are safe in spite of this dickhead’s case. One Supreme Court justice presiding over the case derided the defense’s comparison to rap music, saying ‘…this sounds like a roadmap for threatening a spouse and getting away with it. You put it in rhyme and you put some stuff about the Internet on it and you say, ‘I’m an aspiring rap artist.'” And I couldn’t agree more. Sure, Eminem’s lyrics were really dark and violent, but most understood he was an entertainer and a storyteller first and foremost, a distinction I’m glad the Supreme Court seems to be making here.

And I don’t really care if Elonis had no intention of harming his wife, posting stuff like that, when she already has a protective order against him for abuse he had committed in the past, would be emotionally traumatic and certainly threatening for her to read, regardless of his intentions.

Think before you post, everybody. And if you’re converting your private events into shitty song lyrics for all your family, friends and colleagues to have to read, turn your computer off and seek professional help before you end up in court with your attorney grasping at straws trying to find a defense for your stupidity.