When do rap lyrics become a crime? Bentonville man’s arrest raises questions about free speech

Bentonville man accused of threatening via lyrics

Reese Sullivan
Reese Sullivan

BENTONVILLE --Reese Sullivan's alter-ego landed him in jail recently by rapping with lyrics police considered threatening, his attorney said.

Ken Paulsen, director of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University, said it's unusual for someone to be arrested related to threats or offensive material in their music.

"The odd thing is, we live in a world where there's hundreds of threats directed at people every single day, and it's rare for people to be identified and prosecuted," Paulsen said.

Sullivan, 20, of Bentonville is free on $50,000 bond after his arrest Nov. 2 in connection with felony terroristic threatening.

Prosecutors haven't filed a formal charge against him. His arraignment is Dec. 11.

Kimberly Weber, Sullivan's attorney, said she hadn't listened to the music. Weber said she's confident the Benton County Prosecuting Attorney's Office will look to the protections of the First Amendment before deciding what, if any, charge to file.

"Reese is a young, talented rapper who is expressing his alter-ego's speech in his music," she said. "He had no ability nor intention to harm anyone."

Paulsen said using rap lyrics as evidence of committing a crime is highly controversial in criminal justice circles because it risks inflaming jurors for whom rap is an unfamiliar and possibly unsettling art form.

The FBI's National Threat Operations Center received a tip Aug. 21 from an anonymous person who listened to the music containing the threats, according to a probable cause affidavit completed by Sgt. Kris Moffit with the Bentonville Police Department. The person provided links to the uploaded music, which contained numerous threats of violence, according to the affidavit.

Nine videos were analyzed, and each video's audio was in the form of rap music, the affidavit states. Statements and threats within the videos included racial statements about specific groups of people and killing them, bombing churches associated with a specific race, killing kids, raping children and bringing his gun to school and killing people of a specific ethnic group, the affidavit states.

There were lyrics about shooting up his school because he was bullied, details of a plan to commit a school shooting and bombing a specific public event. There also were lyrics about killing his grandmother, killing the president and bombing the Senate, according to the affidavit.

The FBI searched Sullivan's apartment and didn't find any weapons nor explosives, the affidavit states.

In an interview with police, Sullivan identified the account as his and said he uses a character or persona to make the rap videos, according to the affidavit.

Sullivan said he started writing and singing these types of songs when he was 17 years old, adding his rap songs are meant to be funny and he doesn't believe the statements he makes in his songs, according to the affidavit.

He said he doesn't hate the groups identified in his music and he hasn't sexually abused children. Sullivan said he has no intention of committing a school shooting, bombing or killing the president, and he has no guns, explosives nor components, according to the affidavit.

Several paragraphs in the affidavit have been redacted.

Paulsen questioned whether Sullivan's music is criminal or protected by the First Amendment.

"It can't be a legal threat if the person threatened doesn't know about it," he said.

The publicly released version of the affidavit doesn't say whether anyone mentioned in Sullivan's music knew about the songs and felt threatened.

Paulsen said he didn't see anything about someone mentioned in the lyrics being apprehensive about the music.

"I could write a threat to Bob, but if Bob never heard it, it's not a crime. What if he just said it in his kitchen, and no one hears? Is it a crime?"

It's not uncommon for prosecutors to use rap lyrics as evidence in cases, but those situations usually involve using the lyrics as supportive evidence in other crimes, Paulsen said.

For example, Fulton County Superior Court Chief Judge Ural Glanville ruled prosecutors can introduce 17 sets of lyrics they have identified as long as they can show the lyrics are connected to the crimes a rapper and others are accused of committing, according to USA Today. Defense attorneys requested the judge prohibit prosecutors from using the lyrics because they are constitutionally protected speech and would be unfairly prejudicial.

For lyrics to have any evidentiary value, they would have to contain specific information or admissions matching an existing crime, Paulsen said.

"Bravado and bragging about crimes and shooting shouldn't by themselves be admissible," he said.

He reiterated in the case of threats in lyrics, a prosecutor would have to establish these are threats to harm a specific person imminently and the person being threatened actually knew of the threat.

"You can't be threatened by lyrics you've never heard," Paulsen said. "Literature, films and plays are all full of imagined crimes and adventures that never actually happened. Lawbreaking described in rap lyrics deserves the same protection."

  photo  Reese Sullivan

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Terroristic threatening

A person commits the offense of terroristic threatening in the first degree if:

(A) With the purpose of terrorizing another person, the person threatens to cause death or serious physical injury or substantial property damage to another person; or

(B) With the purpose of terrorizing another person, the person threatens to cause physical injury or property damage to a teacher or other school employee acting in the line of duty.

Source: NWA Democrat-Gazette


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