RAP Act would govern when lyrics, other art can be evidence in criminal trials

      Some people in Missouri’s prisons are there after a jury considered the lyrics they wrote or listened to when weighing their guilt.  One House member thinks courts should have to consider whether lyrics or other artistic expressions are relevant to a case before they are allowed in a trial.

Representative Phil Christofanelli (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      House Bill 353 would lay out when such expressions could be introduced to a jury and require that a hearing be conducted to see whether they meet that criteria.

      The Restoring Artistic Protection (RAP) Act, as it’s being called, is sponsored by Representative Phil Christofanelli (R-St. Peters).

      “We want artists to not be afraid to engage in their full scope of expression when they’re creating music in our state,” said Christofanelli.  “It’s really a First Amendment issue because we don’t want to have a chilling effect through state action on the expression of artists in our community.”

“Certainly some of the greatest songs out there include references to things that are illegal or criminal and we don’t want to essentially prohibit artists or discourage artists from engaging in that type of expression.”

      Christofanelli said many judges are already doing what his bill would require because they recognize that things like lyrics are often used to prejudice a jury. 

      “[Prosecutors] introduce that they have sung or rapped about unsavory things in the past so obviously they must have engaged in whatever crime they’ve been currently accused of,” explained Christofanelli.  “But certainly if it’s the case that they’re actually singing about literal representations of things that they’ve done in the past, well then that would be relevant.  I think that as long as we have a gatekeeper to make sure that that sort of evidence doesn’t reach the jury unfairly I think that it will be okay.”

      Under HB 353 before song lyrics, literature, visuals, or any other form of art could go before a jury as evidence against a defendant prosecutors would first have to convince a judge that it was relevant to the crime.

      “The prosecution must show that the artistic material was intended to be a literal description of the defendant’s activities.”

      Supporters say in more than 500 cases in the U.S. have lyrics played a part in criminal trials.  

      Christofanelli said one of the entities he has worked with in deciding to file HB 353 is Warner Music, which owns labels including Elektra Records, Reprise Records, Warner Records, Parlophone Records, and Atlantic Records.

      “This is a bill that they have worked on in other states and I think there’s a federal version as well and really it’s because it’s become a real problem for some of their artists.”

       “We want Missouri to be a place where artists come to create because that helps our economy and helps our cultural atmosphere.  There’s a huge music production facility going in to Chesterfield which is going to be tens- if not hundreds of millions of dollars of economic activity around the music industry right here in the St. Louis area and we certainly want to be a place that’s friendly and welcoming to artists, and the industry this bill is a part of that.”