He rapped that he’d shoot up the University of Florida. Are his lyrics free speech?

Christopher Maurice McCallum’s booking photo on April 10, 2019.
Christopher Maurice McCallum’s booking photo on April 10, 2019. Alachua County Sheriff's Office

An Ocala rapper who threatened in his lyrics to blow up the University of Florida campus is going to find out whether the threat of a mass shooting in an art form is considered protected free speech.

On Tuesday, the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office arrested Christopher Maurice McCallum, 27, aka Jun Jun, and charged him with two second-degree felony counts of intimidation by written threat to commit bodily injury and to kill or injure, according to court records.

At issue: lines in a rap he posted to Facebook on March 22 that read: “Catch you at a Gator game and shoot the whole campus up.”

The audio/photo clip posted to the rapper’s Facebook page has since been viewed more than 35,000 times and, according to the Gainesville Sun, alludes to a feud among McCallum, rapper Keyanta Bullard and some Gainesville men pegged to a Bullard performance the next night at a downtown Gainesville club.

‘Context is key’

“The context is key for determining whether something is a true threat,” said Clay Calvert, a journalism professor and director of the Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project at the University of Florida.

“Rappers often engage in hyperbole and rhetoric to posture,” he said.

A judge will have to determine whether the line in the rap could be perceived by a reasonable person to be a credible, true threat of violence. True threats are not protected speech, courts have ruled.

Florida statute

Under Florida statutes concerning threats, a person who threatens to kill or do bodily injury to another person or threatens to conduct a mass shooting or an act of terrorism — including by writing, composing, sending or procuring, and by means which include electronic communication — “that would allow another person to view the threat, commits a felony of the second degree.”

Alachua sheriff’s Lt. Brett Rhodenizer told the Gainesville Sun his understanding of the posted rap is that “it was very specific as to locations ... and concurrent with an upcoming concert,” and probable cause existed to make the arrest.

Of McCallum’s posted rap lyric, Calvert told the Miami Herald on Thursday: “My feeling is it’s not a true threat. The fact that this is happening is not unusual. This case in Gainesville is reflective of how rap music often finds itself in the crosshairs of prosecution, including true threats.”

Supreme court Knox case

On Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to consider if it will hear the case of Jamal Knox, aka Mayhem Mal, a Pittsburgh rapper who was charged with making terroristic threats against two police officers he named in a rap video. He was found guilty in lower courts in a a non-jury trial that ruled his lyric was a “true threat” that is not protected First Amendment speech.

Other rappers, including Chance the Rapper, Fat Joe, Killer Mike and Luther Campbell, along with music industry representatives, posted briefings as primers to Supreme Court justices on rap music, “a heavily stigmatized form of expression often associated with negative stereotypes and often subject to misinterpretation.”

True threat

“’True threat’ is something that puts people in fear of an imminent threat or death. Would a reasonable listener of that song hear that threat?” Calvert asks, noting that that’s the decision a Florida court will have to make concerning McCallum’s reference to the UF campus in his Facebook post — which had not been taken down early Thursday.

Previous songs, such as Johnny Cash’s classic murder ballad, “Folsom Prison Blues,” written in 1953, and N.W.A.’s “F--- tha Police” in 1988, a blistering rap that protested police brutality and racial profiling, sparked controversy for their violent content.

But there was no “true threat” stated or implied in lyrics like Cash’s “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die” or N.W.A.’s indictment of police officers as a collective.

“I tell my class, ‘When Britney Spears asks, ‘Hit me baby one more time’ she’s not asking to be hit,’” Calvert said.

The Florida Supreme Court allowed the release of surveillance footage showing the response of law enforcement to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland. Media organizations had sued for the video.

Free Jun plea

On April 3, McCallum posted a plea on his Facebook page, urging his fans to post #FreeJun in support.

“Everybody goes thru trials and tribulations but it ain’t too many ppl that go thru as many as me...I’m in jail once again....Gville put the police on me about a song but no worries...God got me,” McCallum said.

McCallum’s bond was set at $50,000.