Rapper C-BO Claims First Amendment Victory

But prisons board says free speech has nothing to do with it.

Less than a week after California rapper C-BO (Shawn Thomas) was arrested and jailed for a number of parole violations -- including one related to the lyrics on his just-released, sixth gangsta-rap album, 'Til My Casket Drops -- the artist remained in custody, albeit closer to freedom.

And while C-BO's lawyers may view the decision to drop charges accusing the rapper of promoting a gang lifestyle in his music as a victory for the First Amendment, others disagree.

Lew Chartrand, executive officer of the California Board of Prisons, said the charges were dropped because of a "lack of solid evidence," not because the charges violated his right to free speech. "There was conflicting evidence on those charges," Chartrand said. "They were not dismissed because of First Amendment issues, but because there was no solid evidence as to when these recordings were made."

Chartrand said a new provision that strictly prohibits any gang involvement has been added to C-BO's parole conditions to clarify the condition of his probation.

Despite Chartrand's contention that C-BO's arrest -- believed to be the first time that an artist was arrested because of song lyrics -- was not a free-speech issue, David Greene, program director of the anti-censorship group the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression, said Monday that he was happy with the result. "I'm glad to see that the California Department of Corrections has recognized that the First Amendment and California's strong protection of free speech prohibits them from conditioning C-BO's parole on sacrificing of his free-speech rights and artistic freedom," Greene explained.

Artist reaction to C-BO's arrest last week was surprisingly mixed. While the outspoken countrybilly rocker Rev. Horton Heat said he agreed that the rapper should be free to make any product he wants, Heat added that he also felt that "people that run around with guns should be in jail; I have no sympathy for the guy. But at the same time, that's his world, him telling a story about his world. You can't really limit that. That's pretty ridiculous."

C-BO's lawyer, John Duree, said Monday that a petition to dismiss the charge was filed Wednesday with the Board of Prisons to request that C-BO be released pending a parole-revocation hearing. That request led to more substantial talks on the specific terms of parole that C-BO had allegedly violated, Duree said. Among the violations for which C-BO had been arrested was one that prohibited his promoting a gang lifestyle, criminal behavior and/or violence against law enforcement.

Authorities contended that lyrics to the song "Deadly Game" (RealAudio excerpt) were among several rap lines on the LP written in violation of this condition. The song, which protests California's three-strikes law, features the lines: "When they try to pull you over/ Shoot 'em in the face y'all."

"Basically, our position going in was that the First Amendment issues were not negotiable," Duree said.

While the California prisons board ruled Friday that the lyric-based parole violation would be dismissed, the rapper will remain in Sacramento's Elk Grove jail until March 18 for three additional violations: traveling outside Sacramento County without the prior approval of his parole officer; failing to inform his parole officer of police contact that occurred following traffic violations; and failing to provide lyric sheets to his parole officer.

The issues that were negotiable, Duree said, were those related to the traffic violations and C-BO's alleged failure to turn over documents to his parole officer. "Clearly the statements made on the album are political in nature," said Phyllis Pollack, C-BO's publicist. "C-BO should be free to dispute the policies of the so-called justice system in his music whenever he feels like it, without fear of going to jail."

C-BO, 28, was originally convicted in 1994 for negligent discharge of a firearm during a fatal gang-related shooting. The rapper served 15 months in California's Soledad Prison and was paroled last July.

DJ Paul of the Memphis-based hip-hop group Three 6 Mafia said he believed that the most recent jailing of C-BO was not only a violation of his free-speech rights, but that "a man should be able to rap about whatever they want to," adding that he was glad "it ain't like that in Memphis." [Tues., March 10, 1998, 9 a.m. PST]