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Diversity Awareness Week Kicks Off with Examination of Hip-Hop and the Law

Diversity Awareness Week Hip Hop and the Law

March 03, 2015

Professor Donald F. Tibbs, criminal defense attorney Arnold Joseph, Widener Law Professor Andre Smith and Abraham Rein of Post & Schell PC convened at the law school on March 2 to kick off Diversity Awareness week and discuss the intersection of hip-hop culture and the law. 

Hip-hop culture and music grew out of a counter-culture where other people's music was sampled to create new and innovative sounds that represented a new form of entertainment, Smith recounted as he defined hip-hop's evolution since its inception. One of the most important things to understand about hip-hop is that it began as entertainment and "entertainment flows through hyperbole," Professor Donald Tibbs added.  When you disconnect the entertainment aspects of allegedly violent, offensive or boastful hip-hop music from its hyperbolic context and use it in a legal context, injustice can result, he said. 

Attorney Arnold Joseph recounted one such example of injustice where a rap video featuring his client was used against him in a criminal murder trial.  In the video Joseph's client rapped about several criminal acts, Joseph said, none of which explicitly described the crime at issue in the trial.  However, because the video was used out of context, the jury ultimately perceived the rap lyrics as an admission of guilt for the murder at issue, he added.  Use of hip-hop out of its historical and cultural context, served only to distort the jurors' perception of his client and their evaluation of the facts of the case, Joseph claimed.

Smith agreed claiming that when hip-hop is used in a legal context we must ask whether it is distorting traditional legal protections against undue prejudice.  Furthermore, in situations where a jury of supposed peers may only be "tangentially peerful" we should afford higher scrutiny to inflammatory evidence such as that used in Joseph's case.  

Abraham Rein agreed claiming similar prejudices arose in his case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court.  In that case, Anthony Elonis was sentenced to four years in prison for posting of explicit rap lyrics on FaceBook containing threatening language in reference to his estranged wife and FBI agents. Rein argued that when these lyrics, which might normally be protected by First Amendment free speech, were put in the context of modern cultural prejudices and perceptions of hip-hop music, the remarks were seen as threats rather than an expression of speech. 

Ultimately, the intersection of hip-hop and the law is a complex issue that must be looked at not only from the perspective of hip-hop's rich history but also through the lens of its current constantly evolving state which involves less of the cultural perspectives of its artists than it does the business interests of the music industry, Tibbs concluded. 

The Black Law Students Association organized the event which is part of a series of events celebrating diversity in the Philadelphia Legal Community: 

Schedule of Events:

March 3, 2015

The Intersection of Immigration and Labor & Employment Law
12 p.m.– 1:00 p.m.
Room 140
Presenters: Michael Hollander, Esq. and Stephanie Dorenborsch, Esq.
Sponsors:  Labor and Employment and LALSA 

Movie Night:  Zero Dark Thirty
5:30 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.
Room 340
Sponsor:  Federalist Society

March 4, 2015

Outcast: The Negative Treatment of LGBT Individuals in the Criminal Justice System Panel Discussion
12 p.m. – 1 p.m.           
Room 140
Panelists:  Su Ming Yeh; Barrett Marshall; Nellie Fitzpatrick
Sponsors:  Civil Litigation, Criminal Law, OutLaw, Family Law 

March 9, 2015

Diversity and the Law Panel Discussion
6 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.               
Room 140
Panelists:  Joseph Centeno, Esq.; Deborah Hong, Esq.; JuHwon Lee, Esq.; Linda Shi, Esq.
Sponsors:  APALSA and DVLA

March 12, 2015                 

Diversity in the Profession: A Bench/Bar Perspective
5:30 p.m. – 6:30 p.m.
Room 140         
Panelists: Judge Pamela Pryor Dembe; Judge C. Darnell Jones; Albert Dandridge, Esquire
Sponsor:  The Thomas R. Kline School of Law Diversity Committee                         

Closing Reception and Award Presentation
6:30 p.m.                                      
3rd Floor Gallery
Award Recipient:  Helen “Nellie” Fitzpatrick, Esquire, Director of LGBT Affairs, City of Philadelphia  
Sponsors:  The Diversity Committee and the Student Bar Association