When Is A Violent Song Just A Song?

Gene Policinski Commentary
First Amendment Watch

By Gene Policinski
First Amendment Center vice president/executive director

Remember that old schoolyard chant, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me”?

Well, the part about “words can never hurt me” is not holding true for a growing set of would-be songwriters who have been jailed for writing lyrics that officials deem violent or threatening — even though none of the cases involves any actual violence.

The latest: a Fort Stewart, Ga., soldier, angry about being ordered back to Iraq after his date to leave the military, who recorded a hip-hop song that blasts the Army and describes going on a shooting spree. For that, the Army deemed Spc. Marc A. Hall a threat – citing the November shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, where 13 died. Hall also made similar comments to others in his unit, according to one report.

An attorney who spoke to Hall told the Associated Press the song was just a “fantasy” and a protest, and that the man was angry, “but not stupid. He’s not violent.” But an Army spokesman said “any reasonable person who listens to that song would be concerned.”

The song, titled “Stop Loss” (the policy that allows an extension of a soldier’s military service), includes rap lyrics about opening fire with his military-issue M-4 rifle, bodies hitting the floor, and the line, “I bet you never stop-loss nobody no more, in your next lifetime of course. No remorse."

Of course, a soldier owes a different allegiance — and deference — to his superiors, and to the government, than do citizens not in military service. But similar tensions between claims of true threats and free speech in music have come up elsewhere recently:

  • A Lakeland, Fla., man pleaded no contest in August and was sentenced to two years in prison in connection with a song he wrote while in jail on other charges, titled “Kill Me A Cop.”
  • In New Bedford, Mass., last month, two men pleaded not guilty to charges stemming from an amateur rap video, “Watch 4 Me,” which authorities said contains sounds of gunfire and threats against a state trooper and a probation officer.

As the Fort Hood killings show, there is real cause to take some threats seriously. But at the same time, protest about government policies — whether in music or words or picket signs — is a vital part of political discourse, and protected by the First Amendment.

No one wants to be in the position of ignoring a potential threat that later is linked with a killing spree. But we also should be concerned that even speech that many find offensive may also be speech that gives voice to real concerns and that speaks to real issues — and that from the beginning of our nation we have restrained the power of government to silence those voices.