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Targeting rapper smacks of prosecutorial abuse

UPDATE: On June 3, 2013, a judge ruled that the prosecution of Cameron D’Ambrosio may proceed, setting a trial date for June 27th and denying his request for bail. The 18 year-old Methuen, Massachusetts resident faces decades in prison for what prosecutors say was a "terrorist threat" communicated in rap lyrics the teen, who goes by "Cammy Dee," published on his Facebook page. His will be a jury trial.

Protesters outside the courthouse today condemned the decision as prosecutorial overreach and a violation of the First Amendment right to freedom of expression, calling for the prosecution to be thrown out and for the judge to free D'Ambrosio. 

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An 18-year-old high school student from the Boston suburb of Methuen is facing two decades in prison, charged with “communicating a terrorist threat.” The young aspiring rapper, Cameron D’Ambrosio, a/k/a Cammy Dee, reportedly posted the following to his Facebook page on May 1, 2013: “Fuck a Boston bomb wait till u see the shit I do, I’m be famous rapping, and beat every murder charge that comes across me!”

Those of us familiar with music know that many songs have violent lyrics, but that doesn’t make the people who sing them a public menace. Johnny Cash famously sang about having killed his beloved Delia. Bob Marley wailed that he had shot the sheriff, but not his deputy. The traditional English ballad, “Twa Sisters,” first sung in 1665, is a truly macabre description of a miller who fished his victim from the river and “made fiddle screws of her little finger bones.”

Hip-hop itself has a long tradition of bold, explicit lyrics. Multi-platinum recording artist Nasir Jones (a/k/a Nas) is but one example of a rapper who has penned lyrics that could be construed as containing a specific threat. A famous diss track that he wrote about Jay Z, “Ether,” contains fantasies about extreme violence:

I embrace y'all with napalm

Blows up, no guts, left chest, face gone

How could Nas be garbage?

Semi-autos at your cartilage

Burner at the side of your dome, come outta my throne.

Now, I can understand why someone wouldn't want to listen to such a thing. But I’m also glad that none of the people who have sung these songs has been charged with “communicating a terrorist threat.” That’s because the First Amendment protects a wide variety of speech — even speech that is distasteful, ugly or gruesome

Moreover, people widely understand that song lyrics are words and that words, by themselves, may offend, but do not constitute a true threat to anyone. Even when songs contain extremely violent lyrics, common sense usually prevails.

Okay – it doesn’t always prevail. J. Edgar Hoover did, in fact, open an FBI file on the song “Louie, Louie,” by the Kingsmen, reportedly because agents didn’t understand the lyrics or why the song was so popular. 

Now, I’ve never considered J. Edgar to be a standard-bearer for liberty or common sense. But apparently, Massachusetts prosecutors in this case are channeling him these days — why else are they throwing the book at young Cameron? 

If the only evidence against him is the lyric that has been made public, the case should be tossed out. There is no “true threat” in D’Ambrosio’s posted lyrics — the legal standard for being charged with the crime he is facing. Massachusetts courts define a “true threat” by looking at whether the person making a statement has the “intention to inflict a crime on another” as well as “an ability to do so in circumstances that would justify apprehension on the part of the recipient of that threat.”

Investigators reportedly searched D’Ambrosio’s house and didn’t find anything suspicious — no bombs, no weapons, no plans to hurt a single soul. 

Absent evidence that D’Ambrosio had any specific target in mind when he vented his troubled spleen, it’s hard to see how prosecutors could make these charges stick – or even justify denying him bail. In the meantime, this wannabe gangster will no doubt use his time in lock-up to learn a lot of new offensive words, if not worse. It sure isn’t keeping anybody safe.

Was what D’Ambrosio said offensive? You bet. But was it criminal? Hardly.

We’ve had too much prosecutorial overreach in Massachusetts as it is. Let's not make it worse. Locking somebody up for bad rap lyrics is a miscarriage of justice that should outrage anyone who sings or listens to music. Let’s hope the judge throws the case out.

UPDATE: Activists opposed to the prosecution protested outside Cameron's bail hearing in Salem, Massachusetts this morning. They had an interesting encounter with the police, which they filmed and have posted on YouTube.

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© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.