James Evans didn’t think twice about posting song lyrics to his Facebook wall on Aug. 24, as he often does while listening to music. This time, however, the verse he chose — “Student bodies lying dead in the halls, a blood splattered treatise of hate / Class dismissed is my hypothesis, gun fire ends in debate” from the metal band Exodus‘ song “Class Dismissed (A Hate Primer)” — caught the attention of a fellow Central City, Ky. resident, who alerted local school officials. Two days later, Evans was arrested.
“It’s surreal,” Evans, 31, tells Billboard. “I didn’t think anything would come of it.”
The fallout began that same day. Local police officers arrived at Evans’ mother’s house in Greenville, Ky., asking if she knew where he was. She directed them to her son’s house in Central City, where they proceeded to ask him if he planned on harming anyone, along with issuing a report on the situation. “I assumed the conversation got resolved,” says Evans, who works the night shift at a screenprinting store. On Monday, the officers returned to his house while Evans was at work, asking his wife what kind of car he drove and if he was in possession of any weapons.
“They informed her that I may or not be charged,” he says. “They said they were going to talk to me at work, but they never showed up. I didn’t think it was that big of a deal.” At 8 a.m. on Tuesday, officers showed up at his workplace and issued Evans a warrant for his arrest. According to 14News, the warrant says Evans was arrested because, “he threatened to kill students and or staff at school.”
“They never even cuffed me, just put me in the back of the car,” he says. “They knew I wasn’t dangerous. They were kind of shocked, too, because they thought it had been resolved. They just had to serve it because it was in their jurisdiction.”
Following news of the incident, Exodus issued a statement, saying, “Exodus does not promote or condone terrorists, threats or bullying.” Continued guitarist Gary Holt, “James Evans was simply posting lyrics to a band he likes on Facebook, and he was locked up for it. The song ‘Class Dismissed (A Hate Primer)’ was written as a view through the eyes of a madman and in no way endorses that kind of f–ked up behavior.
“It was the Virginia Tech massacre perpetrated by Seung-Hui Cho that was the subject and inspiration to write the song, one in which we put the brakes on playing it live after the Sandy Hook shooting, as we did not want to seem insensitive… When we start to overreact to things like lyrics by any band, including Exodus, and start arresting people, we are caving in to paranoia and are well on our way to becoming an Orwellian society.”
Evans assumed he would be released following his court day on Aug. 27, where his wife, sister, and mother were present. Instead, he was charged with a Class C felony — a classification that includes petty theft in the state of Kentucky — for “terrorist threatenings” and faced the possibility of between five and 10 years in prison. When he heard that verdict, Evans was not happy. “I couldn’t believe it got that out of hand,” he says. “At the same time it’s worrisome because I have a family to take care of. I have a three-month-old son.”
At his second court date a week later, Evans was handed a deferment for six months and was required to undergo a mental evaluation, the date for which has not been set yet. If he complies with the court, the charges will be dropped from his record. “They can watch all day,” he says. “I don’t do anything wrong. I pretty much work and come home. That’s it.”
David Greene, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, tells Billboard this case is a misinterpretation of threat law. “Generally, statements are protected by the First Amendment,” he says. “There’s an exception for true threats, which are threats of violence directed against a person that puts that person in a state of fear. There’s absolutely no basis for thinking this person was doing anything more than quoting lyrics, or that he intended to put any person in a state of fear or carry out any action of attack.”
Amber Duke, communications manager at the ACLU of Kentucky, agrees. “Based upon the media reports on this case, it seems evident to the ACLU of Kentucky that the police overreached in charging Mr. Evans with a crime,” she wrote in an email to Billboard. “The First Amendment exists to protect people from government censorship of unpopular, but otherwise lawful, speech. And there is no greater threat to our ability to exercise that right than to be thrown in jail for doing so.”
UPDATE: The ACLU of Kentucky will be taking over Evans’ defense. “The First Amendment exists to protect people from government censorship of unpopular, but otherwise lawful, speech,” wrote executive director Michael Aldridge in a statement. “There is no greater threat to our ability to exercise that right than to be thrown in jail for doing so.” He added, “We look forward to mounting a vigorous defense on Mr. Evans’ behalf, and in ensuring that his, and all Kentuckians’, First Amendment rights are protected.”
Wrongful arrests or accusations like these are such a threat, in fact, that the Supreme Court is tackling the issue of online threats this term. Last month, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that violent rap lyrics cannot be used as evidence in trials, except for special situations when those lyrics are closely connected to the case in question. “One would not presume that Bob Marley, who wrote the well-known song ‘I Shot the Sheriff,’ actually shot a sheriff,” the presiding judge wrote in her decision.
In a similar case later in August, Professor Clay Calvert of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications issued a friend-of-the-court brief in Elonis v. United States. Anthony Elonis was indicted for posting rap lyrics he claimed were “artistic, therapeutic, and not meant to be taken as literal threats of violence.”
“Our goals with the brief are twofold,” said Calvert. “First, we want to help the justices understand the interpretative problems of meaning and understanding of rap lyrics and, second, we strive to highlight the artistic and political aspects of rap music that often are lost amidst the negative stereotypes that surround it.”
May the same be true of metal music and its fans.
Additional reporting by Christa Titus.