Norfolk Drops Criminal Charges against Music Artist for On-stage Comments

Affiliate: ACLU of Virginia
July 24, 2008 12:00 am

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ACLU of Virginia had agreed to provide legal representation to rapper ‘Boots’ Riley, who was charged with violating Virginia’s cursing in public law


Norfolk, VA — The City of Norfolk has dropped cursing in public charges against rapper Raymond “Boots” Riley, who was removed from the stage during a performance at the Bayou Boogaloo at Town Point Park in June.

Riley’s offense was to introduce a band member as “the best fuckin’ drummer I’ve ever played with” and to sing a song containing the lyric “what the fuck.”

The ACLU of Virginia was preparing a legal defense for Riley when it learned that the case had been dismissed.

“Whether or not Riley’s words were artfully chosen or appropriate for the venue is a matter of individual taste and even a legitimate topic for public debate,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “But festival officials should not have stopped the performance, and the police certainly had no grounds whatsoever to charge him with a crime. That’s censorship, pure and simple, and it’s the kind of government action we fear most in this country.”

“Norfolk’s attorneys are to be commended for moving swiftly to have the case dismissed,” said Willis, “but this incident should not have happened in the first place. Frankly, we believe Riley is owed an apology.”

“It is important, too, that the City of Norfolk take a close look at its actions to make sure that race was not a factor,” added Willis. “Have white artists performing in Norfolk been charged under the curse and abuse statute when they use the f-word during performances?”

Courts have consistently held that the government may not punish individuals for using profanity unless it is in the context of “fighting words,” or “words that have a direct tendency to cause acts of violence by the person to whom, individually, the remark is addressed.”

In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that held that mere use of the f-word outside the context of a personal insult is not a “fighting word.”

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