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If I understand correctly, freedom of speech does not, in many countries, include speech that glorifies illegal activity.

What is the legal status in such countries of songs like Convoy, which do that? Convoy, for example, refers to speeding ("we crashed the gate doin' 98 [miles per hour, at a time when 55 MPH was the national speed limit]"; "Well, we rolled up Interstate 44 like a rocket sled on rails"; a rocket sled on rails goes faster than 55 MPH, and the simile doesn't make sense at normal speeds), evading police (evading police is basically the theme of the entire song; you can't really quote a short section that specifically mentions), failure to keep mandated records ("We tore up all of our swindle sheets, And left 'em settin' on the scales"), violation of radio regulations (use of CB radio to coordinate illegal activity is illegal, and is a separate offense from the main illegal act; also, a two-way conversation between Rubber Duck in New Jersey and Pig Pen in Nebraska would almost certainly require a linear unless skip conditions were perfect, which is unlikely considering that the song was published in 1975 in the solar minimum between cycles 20 and 21 ), and probably other crimes that I missed.

What about ones like Four Wheel Drive, where illegal activity is also glorified initially (evading police is the main thing here, too; "Well, the chase was on, but I had the edge with a rig that'll never fail; got a CJ-5 with a four wheel drive with Smokey on my tail"), but end with consequences for the illegal act ("Got a CJ-5 with a four-wheel drive sittin' out back of the jail")?

Are there any countries where my question would be illegal to write?

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    This question is a bit too general: many countries have specific laws about glorifying terrorism; about treasonous speech or speech insulting royalty; blasphemy laws; laws about inciting racial violence; and many other specific forms of speech that may incite crimes. On the other hand, the legal status of a trucker failing to keep mandated records will vary a lot - in some places it will be a civil offence, or not illegal. If you're interested in a particular topic, e.g. the song Convoy, be specific, otherwise you'll get a list of people saying "It's illegal to call for X in Y".
    – Stuart F
    Sep 23 at 13:06
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    Album cover (for amusement only)
    – Wastrel
    Sep 23 at 15:13
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    I clicked on this expecting it to be about “gangsta” rap, but I love the old school example! Sep 24 at 15:19
  • Seems that some of the answers and comments are assuming a particular country without mentioning what that country is.
    – WGroleau
    Sep 24 at 16:26
  • @WGroleau comments, maybe, but every answer has at least one jurisdiction tag.
    – Someone
    Sep 24 at 17:52

4 Answers 4

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What is the status of songs that glorify illegal activity in different countries?

Depends on the crime and the lyrics. For historical reasons, glorifying genocide is banned. Calling for crimes to be committed against individuals is banned. More generic 'gangster rap' pretending to a criminal lifestyle is allowed. The exact dividing line between the two comes out in court precedents, which weigh the freedom of expression against the freedom from insults and criminal threats.

Are there any countries where my question would be illegal to write?

Sure. Consider North Korea, where those lyrics would be evidence of decadent Western speech patterns and get punished by two years to life (or more, if the police has a quota to fill).

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    Thank you! That's funny that you mentioned North Korea; I had actually typed "Are there any countries other than North Korea..." and decided to remove that part.
    – Someone
    Sep 23 at 4:55
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    @Someone, considering that Convoy has been shown on TV, certainly for the former. I expect the same for the latter.
    – o.m.
    Sep 23 at 5:19
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    @quarague The bar for songs to be outright banned is, and should be, very high. You aren't going to get banned if you rap about doing drugs or sing about going over the speed limit (you may get some public outcry, but that's not the same as being banned, even though some people like to pretend it is). I could imagine that there are some examples of songs of neo-nazi bands that actually got banned, but no high-profile case comes to mind.
    – xLeitix
    Sep 23 at 13:54
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    @user3067860, read what human rights organizations write about law enforcement in the DPRK (and what North Korea responds, if you don't trust them). Punishment is set according to the needs of the party, not according to the law, and the law is harsh enough. Beyond life sentences are death sentences, or life sentences for entire families.
    – o.m.
    Sep 23 at 17:19
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    @user3067860, North Korea practices a form of collective punishment where you, your children, and your grandchildren are imprisoned for life as punishment for a crime you committed.
    – Mark
    Sep 23 at 21:42
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Drill music is become effectively criminalised as people are prosecuted for "inciting violence", and "conspiracy". The metropolitan police have a database of 1900 "illegal" drill videos, people have been sent down for decades for the songs and some have to get their lyrics approved by the police.

At the start of 2019, Skengo and AM became the first musicians in the UK of any type to be convicted for performing a live song, when they were sentenced to nine months and suspended for two years for breaching an interim gang injunction

Drill artist Digga D has check-ins with the police every three hours, subject to recall to prison without a stated reason, has to get his lyrics approved by the police, and even required to move away from his home in London and into a hostel in Norwich.

On 1 July 2022, four of [murdered 16-year-old aspiring rapper John Soyoye] friends, Harry Oni, Jeffrey Ojo, Gideon Kalumda and Brooklyn Jitobah were sentenced to 21 years’ imprisonment (20 for Jitobah), after they were found guilty of conspiracy to murder for planning revenge attacks for Soyoye’s death. Despite not having any weapons, taking part in any violence or efforts to locate attack targets, four of the six other defendants were seemingly condemned solely for comments they made in a group chat with the other defendants three days after Soyoye’s death.

The boys were defined — and therefore condemned — by the prosecution as being part of the M40 ‘gang’, although they denied this. The defendants told the court that M40 is not a gang, but a drill music collective in which some, but not all, of them rapped. The quoting of drill lyrics in their chat, showing their shared love of UK drill — one of the most popular genres in the country — was also seen to be incriminating.

Sentencing, Mr Justice Goose said: “It was played out in social media and through drill rap music, with threats of violence, the display of weapons, including firearms, machetes and crossbows.”

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    I had to look up what "drill music" is, I'd never heard of it before.
    – Barmar
    Sep 23 at 14:06
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    @Barmar Yeah, I had something more along the lines of John Philip Sousa in mind until I started reading the quoted text. - haha
    – reirab
    Sep 23 at 21:23
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    @reirab I was thinking it was like cadence calls.
    – Barmar
    Sep 23 at 21:24
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    A definition of drill music would be in order. It isn't a familiar term to many readers including me. Even delving into a description, I'm still a little fuzzy about what exactly it means. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drill_music
    – ohwilleke
    Sep 24 at 1:24
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    @ohwilleke Drill music / drill rap is all about the lyrics and music video. It tells of life on the street. The lyrics might glorify knife-crime or shoplifting, threaten violent revenge against a rival gang, or be about murdering the police. The music videos often contain young men in balaclavas or face masks to conceal their identity out on the street waving around knives or drugs. One of the more popular drill rap videos featured the group getting stop-and-searched by UK armed police during the making of the drill video.
    – niemiro
    Sep 24 at 7:31
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In the case of the , merely glorifying illegal activity is not and cannot be illegal (without amending the Constitution, at least.) Even advocating for illegal acts is explicitly protected in Supreme Court First Amendment precedent in most cases. So, 'Convoy' would definitely be protected speech here.

In the 1969 Supreme Court case Brandenburg v. Ohio, the Supreme Court ruled that the government may not prohibit speech advocating lawless actions unless both elements of a two-part test are met (which came to be known as the Brandenburg Test.) Specifically, in order for the government to be allowed to make a law prohibiting speech advocating criminal activity, the speech must be:

  • "directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action"
    AND
  • "likely to incite or produce such action"

The "imminent" part there should especially be noted. Advocating for a specific lawless action at a later indefinite time is specifically protected under this test (that is, it cannot be illegal.)

So, whether the speech is glorifying speeding or advocating violent crime, it cannot be illegal unless it is specifically directed towards inciting a specific person or group to do so imminently. Thus, unless you are composing and singing a song about driving 98 mph while sitting in a passenger seat of a vehicle that is actively driving down a road in a manner directed towards inciting the driver to actually do that right now and in which it is likely that the driver would actually do that, then neither composing nor performing said song is illegal in the U.S. Nor would one glorifying (and/or promoting) drug use, gang crime, hate crimes, or any other sort of crime be illegal.

(Also, no, it is not illegal to either sing or shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater, contrary to common misconceptions stemming from dicta in a court case from 100 years ago that was overruled 50 years ago that had nothing to do with either fires or theaters, but rather with protesting against conscription.)

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    Regarding the parenthetical last paragraph, it may not be illegal per se to shout "fire" in a crowded theater, but it remains true that someone who falsely does so and causes people to be injured could be held criminally liable for e.g. criminal nuisance in New York, and the first amendment would not protect the defendant.
    – phoog
    Sep 24 at 15:27
  • @phoog It is unclear to me that that would fall under any of the exceptions that courts of articulated to First Amendment protection. Can you provide a reference where speech was the conduct in question and a conviction was actually upheld (in the post-Brandenburg era?) In respect to that particular law, here is a case where such a charge was dismissed precisely because the 'conduct' constituted protected speech.
    – reirab
    Sep 24 at 19:24
  • @phoog In particular, "On December 8, 2014, the Nassau County District Court dismissed the charges against the Plaintiff on the ground that his conduct had amounted to protected political expression." In that case, the person was charged under 240.45 for hanging a sign from an overpass in a manner that police deemed to be dangerous to traffic traveling on the road below (i.e. it was distracting motorists.)
    – reirab
    Sep 24 at 19:26
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    @reirab: Shouting fire in a crowded theater is both likely and intended to cause everyone to panic and (probably) physically harm one another while attempting to evacuate. It fails the Brandenburg test that you have articulated. However, if there really is a fire, then you would probably have a necessity defense.
    – Kevin
    Sep 25 at 7:06
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    This is exactly correct. It's the difference between "The POTUS should be killed" versus "Hey, you, me, let's go kill the POTUS tonight. Go get your gun and meet me at the White House in an hour". Sep 26 at 10:37
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In , certain types of songs that promote illegal activity can be prosecuted. For instance, the rapper Valtònyc was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for songs that were alleged to contain threats to specific individuals, insults to the Crown (saying that he wanted to hang the king, for instance), and promotion of terrorism (among other things, Valtònyc claimed that the Basque separatist group "ETA is a great nation," which was a famous slip made by the ex-president Mariano Rajoy. Some other musicians have been prosecuted under similar laws.

By contrast, in the , the laws surrounding freedom of expression are much more permissive, meaning that little short of a credible threat to a specific individual or the use of a song to coordinate actual criminal conspiracy would likely be illegal. For instance, the rapper Snoop Dogg released a music video in which he threatened "Trump" with a gun, and had an album showing him standing over a dead Trump, but did not face legal sanction. Both of your songs seem to be from the United States, so this might be the most relevant jurisdiction.

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