In November 2020, ACLU-TN and ACLU filed an amicus brief in the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals in the case of Christopher Bassett, Jr., who was convicted for the 2015 murder of Zaevion Dobson.
During the trial, the state introduced a msusic video which featured Bassett and six other men rapping. The genre of music in the video is a subgenre of rap known as drill rap, which is often charcterized by themes of gun violence, maintenance of neighborhood boundaries, and the tragedy of lives lost or taken. Those familiar with drill rap would not question Bassettt's lyrics, as they contain common attributes of the genre.
Our brief argues that the trial court treated rap music as inherentlymore incriminating than other artistic and musical forms, and points our to the court that the video's imagery and lyrics are protected by the First Amendment. Courts across the country have similarly misjudged rap music as self-incriminating evidence.
This disparate treatment of rap music was exhibited when the state used the music video and its lyrics as an attempt to understand the mindset of the defendants, and to support the theory that the murder of Dobson was gang-related. However, it was never proven that Bassett or Dobson were in gangs, and the video submitted in the trial was posted online months before the crime in question with no mention of the victim.
Additionally, the state's admission of this music video in the trial is in violation of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and the Tennessee Constitution. The images and lyrics are protected free speech and are not an admission or evidence of guilt. Bassett's performance in the music video is a form of artistic expression and any lyrics and imagery used are protected under the First Amendment, which allows for freedom of speech, expression, and association.
On January 18, 2022, the Court of Criminal Appeals denied Mr. Bassett's appeal, finding that the introduction of the rap video did not violate the First Amendment. We are in contact with Mr. Bassett's attorneys to determine whether he will seek the review of the Tennessee Supreme Court.
State of Tennessee
Christopher Bassett, Jr.
ACLU-TN: Thomas H. Castelli, Stella Yarbrough
ACLU: Emerson Sykes, Vera Eidelman, Arianna Demas