The hip-hop duo Insane Clown Posse and the American Civil Liberties Union have sued the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI, accusing them of wrongly identifying the group's fan base as a criminal gang, violating its free speech rights.
The Michigan-based Insane Clown Posse is known for its "controversial, rebellious and provocative" music that often uses harsh themes and language, according to the lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Detroit on Wednesday.
Many of the duo's estimated 1 million fans, known as Juggalos, paint their faces to look like clowns and display a logo of a hatchet man on their clothes and jewelry, according to the lawsuit.
In a press release, the Michigan chapter of the ACLU said that Juggalos "are not an organized fan club, but a group of people who bond over the music and a philosophy of life, much like 'Deadheads' bonded around the Grateful Dead."
The statement continued, "The Juggalos are fighting for the basic American right to freely express who they are, to gather and share their appreciation of music, and to discuss issues that are important to them without fear of being unfairly targeted and harassed by police."
The gang designation has caused the Juggalos "significant harm, including repeated police harassment and denial of employment," according to the complaint.
"You cannot brand over a million Juggalos as gang members without any evidence," Rana Elmir, spokeswoman for the ACLU, told Al Jazeera. "Designating fans as a criminal enterprise is in violation of their constitutional rights to expression and association."
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of four Juggalos and Insane Clown Posse singers Joseph Utsler and Joseph Bruce, who go by the names Shaggy 2 Dope and Violent J, respectively. It accuses the Justice Department and FBI of violating the fans' First Amendment rights and collecting information on the group without suspicion of criminal activity.
The suit refers to a 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment, in which the Justice Department said Juggalos were a loosely organized hybrid gang.
The government's assessment showed a photo of what appears to be a female Juggalo, with a painted clown face, aiming a pistol. The report said most crimes committed by Juggalos were sporadic and involved assault, drugs, theft and vandalism.
A small number of Juggalos were forming more organized subsets and engaging in more ganglike criminal activity, such as felony assaults, robberies and drug sales, the assessment said.
The Justice Department in Detroit was not immediately available for comment.
One self-identified Juggalo, Brandon Bradley, 20, "has on numerous occasions been stopped and detained by law enforcement officers in California," the ACLU said in a statement. "Each time, the officer has wrongly accused Brandon of being in a gang and has interrogated him about being a Juggalo and his affiliated tattoos and clothing. Another client, Scott Gandy, was told he would not be accepted in the Army because his ICP tattoo was a gang symbol."
The Insane Clown Posse website shows photos of Utsler and Bruce in black-and-white-painted clown faces with tattoos on their hands and forearms. The two said in a statement posted on the site that the Posse's legal counsel and the ACLU "think that the discrimination, profiling and harassment that Juggalos have been facing over the last few years in (sic) flat out WRONG and un-American."
Al Jazeera and Reuters