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New York Senate passes new laws to restrict the use of rap lyrics in criminal proceedings

By | Published on Wednesday 18 May 2022

New York State Capitol

New laws that would restrict when prosecutors can cite rap lyrics in criminal proceedings were passed by the Senate of New York State yesterday, just a week after supposedly incriminating lyrics were included in legal papers alongside the prosecution of Young Thug and Gunna. There is now one more stage in the process before these new rules become law in New York State.

The proposed new rules are contained in Senate Bill S7527, sometimes dubbed the ‘rap on trial’ bill. Put forward late last year by senators Jamaal Bailey and Brad Hoylman, the proposals have been backed by the likes of Jay-Z, Meek Mill, Killer Mike and Fat Joe.

The aim is to ensure that where defendants in a criminal case also make music – and especially rap music – there are restrictions on presenting those defendants’ lyrics as evidence. Supporters of the bill say that when lyrics are used by prosecutors in criminal cases, they often add very little substance to the case being argued, but can be impactful on juries. The practice of using lyrics in this way also disproportionally impacts on black men.

The bill itself describes its mission as follows: “The purpose of this legislation is to protect freedom of speech and artistic expression in New York State. This bill effectuates the enhanced free speech protections provided by the New York State Constitution, ensuring that criminal defendants are tried based upon evidence of criminal conduct, not the provocative nature of their artistic works and tastes”.

The new restrictions would affect the use of any form of “creative expression” as evidence in court. They wouldn’t stop such creative expression from being used at all, but prosecutors would be obliged to explain to the jury why they believed any allegedly incriminating lyrics were “literal” rather than “figurative or fictional”.

Last week rappers Young Thug and Gunna were among 28 people charged in Georgia accused of involvement in a gang that committed murders, shootings and carjackings. Music videos and lyrics from the two rappers are being used as key evidence in that case.

Back in New York, the proposals now passed by the Senate will also need to be voted through by the state’s Assembly before they can become law.

However, a companion bill is already set to go to committee in the Assembly, and supporters of the proposals remain optimistic the new restrictions will come into force in New York State, with the hope similar measures might then be considered elsewhere in the US.

Erik Nielson, an academic who co-wrote the book ‘Rap On Trail: Race, Lyrics And Guilt In America’, welcomed yesterday’s vote, writing on Twitter: “The New York Senate just passed the rap on trial bill! Now on to the Assembly and then, hopefully, to [New York State] Governor Kathy Hochul for her signature. This is a historic bill and should be a blueprint for other states to follow”.