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Congress reintroduces the Restoring Artistic Protection (RAP) Act, leading the federal efforts to decriminalize artistic expression
On Thursday, April 27, Reps. Hank Johnson and Jamaal Bowman reintroduced the Restoring Artistic Protection Act, or RAP Act, during a press conference on Capitol Hill as part of the Recording Academy's Annual GRAMMYs on the Hill Awards and Advocacy Day. They were joined by Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason, Jr., Grammy-nominated artist and producer Rico Love, Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists President Fran Drescher, founder and co-chair of the Black Music Action Coalition Willie “Prophet” Stiggers, chairman and CEO of 300 Elektra Entertainment Kevin Liles, and FIRE’s legislative and policy director Joe Cohn.
The bill would limit the use of lyrics and other artistic expression in court against artists by setting the legal criteria for their admission as evidence.
“This legislation is long overdue,” Rep. Johnson said. “For too long, artists have been unfairly targeted by prosecutors who use their lyrics as evidence of guilt, even though there is no evidence that the lyrics are anything more than just simply creative expression.” Rep. Johnson added, “In court, an artist’s creative content shouldn’t be used as evidence of guilt without the prosecutor having to show the judge, outside of the presence of the jury and by clear and convincing evidence, that the artistic expression was intended to be taken as true.”
“If artists fear prosecutors will misuse their creative works against them, they will self censor. We all lose when artists are stifled.” FIRE Legislative and Policy Director Joe Cohn
The use of creative expression in criminal trials — without context and good reason — runs afoul of the First Amendment. FIRE is glad to see members of Congress agree. Lyrics have been a controversial tool used by prosecutors in several recent high-profile cases. While conducting research for their book, “Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America,” Erik Nielson and Andrea Dennis identified nearly 700 cases, from the late 1980s to present, in which rap lyrics have been used as evidence “to justify charging a suspect, to secure an indictment, to compel a plea bargain, and/or to justify sentencing recommendations.”
“This bill doesn’t speak to innocence or guilt,” Prophet, co-chair of the Black Music Action Coalition, said. “It simply states that lyrics cannot be the only evidence used to prosecute.”
And as FIRE’s Joe Cohn said at the press conference: “The RAP Act protects artistic expression while still allowing prosecutors to keep communities safe.”
While the bill creates the presumption that artistic expression is inadmissible at trials, it provides a process for determining when it should still be considered — for example, when the expression “refers to the specific facts of the crime alleged.” SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher agreed, explaining, “this Act helps the courts to maintain prosecutors to hold up the highest of standards, and that’s everybody’s constitutional right and protection.”
Further, Joe joined the group in eagerly reminding the public of the cultural significance of artistic expression and the role artists in all genres have played in defining American culture.
“Since our nation’s founding, artistic expression has been the lifeblood of our society” Joe said. “If artists fear prosecutors will misuse their creative works against them, they will self censor. We all lose when artists are stifled.”
“For too long, artists have been unfairly targeted by prosecutors who use their lyrics as evidence of guilt, even though there is no evidence that the lyrics are anything more than just simply creative expression.” Rep. Jamaal Bowman
Rep. Bowman also emphasized that artists throughout history have provided important insight into our country and our culture. He added that creativity and the arts bring people together “to create beautiful masterpieces that educate, inform, and inspire the next generation of leaders that we need in Washington and across the country.”
Importantly, the speakers emphasized that the RAP Act’s protection is not limited to rap lyrics — it protects all creative expression. Many speakers at the press conference celebrated this inclusive definition. Rico Love explained, “criminalizing creative work has a dangerous impact on all genres of music and all forms of creative expression — from hip hop, to jazz, to classical, and from dance to literature to film.”
Driving the point home, Joe argued, “Whether Mario Puzo’s ‘Godfather,’ Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Reservoir Dogs,’ Bob Marley’s ‘I Shot the Sheriff,’ Johnny Cash’s ‘Folsom City Blues.’ It’s all protected. Ice-T isn’t a ‘Cop Killer.’ Nor is he a cop despite now playing one on TV.”
Music to our ears: California law restricts use of artistic expression as evidence in criminal trials
In a victory for free expression, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law a bill restricting the state from using rap lyrics as evidence in a trial.
Kevin Liles, chairman & CEO of 300 Elektra Entertainment, concluded the prepared remarks segment of the press conference with hopeful comments on the legislation’s prospects, concluding, “I have hope that the whole music and creative community has come together. I have hope in groups on the right and the left both saying that this is against the values of Americans. I have hope in red states and blue states advancing legislation to end this practice.”
Protecting artists’ creative expression is not a partisan issue. As stated by many during the press conference, similar measures have been introduced and voted favorably on in various state legislatures across the country, and California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a similar bill last year.
FIRE thanks Reps. Johnson and Bowman for the invitation to participate in this press conference, and we urge all lawmakers to stand up for artists and enact protections to ensure artists feel free to express themselves without fear of their creations being unjustly used against them by prosecutors.
The press conference can be watched on the Recording Academy’s Instagram account.
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