My name is Joe Cohn and I am Legislative and Policy Director at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression - or FIRE - a national, nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to defending free speech. Since 1999, we have defended the free speech rights of people on all points of the political spectrum because free speech either works for everyone or it works for no one. I’m here today to celebrate the introduction of the Restoring Artistic Protection Act of 2023, better known as the RAP Act.
Since our nation’s founding, artistic expression has been the lifeblood of our society. Artists critique our government, our institutions, and shed light on the human experience. Whether in the form of television, film, photography, a novel, or music, artistic expression enjoys broad First Amendment protections.
I know this may come as a surprise, but sometimes art depicts violence. 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.
Unfortunately, according to the book Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America by professors Erik Neilson from the University of Richmond and University of Georgia School of Law Andrea Dennis, from 2009 to 2019, prosecutors in more than 500 criminal cases have used artists’ rap lyrics as evidence against them.
If artists fear prosecutors will misuse their creative works against them, they will self censor. We all lose when artists are stifled. Removing this threat thoughtfully is necessary.
The RAP Act would fix this problem by preventing prosecutors from introducing an artist’s work into criminal proceedings except in limited, well thought-out contexts. In the cases where someone actually creates or participates in artistic expression that is clearly linked to a specific crime that discloses details of a crime that would only be known to the perpetrator, there's a process for prosecutors to get the evidence admitted. The RAP Act protects artistic expression while still allowing prosecutors to keep our communities safe.
Congress must stand up for artists and enact the RAP Act without delay. Thank you.