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Criminal Justice Reform

California Governor Set to Sign Bill Restricting Use of Lyrics in Criminal Cases

Similar bill was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives to establish First Amendment safeguards
Gavin Newsom speaks during a Nov. 6, 2018, event in Los Angeles. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images)

Amid a growing movement on both the state and federal level, California is one step closer to restricting the use of rap lyrics as evidence by prosecutors in criminal cases.

Introduced by California State Assemblyperson Reginald Byron Jones-Sawyer, AB 2799 would require judges to query prosecutors on whether introducing lyrics would add racial bias into these cases and will reportedly be signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom in the coming days.

“When rap and hip-hop artists adhere to this time-honored tradition of make-believe, their lyrics are too often — and unfairly — taken literally, stripped of the poetic license afforded other genres,” Recording Industry Association of America chairman/CEO Mitch Glazier wrote the California State Senate in a letter of support for AB 2799.

A similar bill that would limit the use of song lyrics in criminal cases has stalled at the State Assembly level in New York, while The Restoring Artistic Protection (RAP) Act was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives to establish safeguards ensuring First Amendment protection for creative expression.

“Freedom of speech is the constitutional foundation the framers thought necessary to enable a new and free society to craft not only its own destiny through commerce and innovations, but through culture, expression, and art,” said Georgia Rep. Hank Johnson, the act’s co-sponsor. “It is no longer enough that the Bill of Rights guarantees that freedom: without further Congressional action, the freedom of speech and of artistic expression present in music will continue to be stifled, and that expression will be chilled, until the voices behind that protected speech are silenced.”

These developments follow the May arrests of rappers Young Thug and Gunna in Georgia on RICO charges, the indictments for which utilized their lyrics as evidence of the artists’ alleged criminal activity.

“It is intensely problematic that the state relies on song lyrics as part of its allegations,” Gunna’s attorneys at Garland Samuel & Loeb PC said at the time. These lyrics are an artist’s creative expression and not a literal recounting of facts and circumstances. Under the state’s theory, any artist with a song referencing violence could find herself the victim of a RICO indictment.”