Federal ruling goes against student punished for rap song

Friday, March 23, 2012

Public school officials in Fulton, Miss., did not violate the First Amendment free-speech rights of a former student when they suspended him for his rap song containing vulgar language about two athletic coaches, a federal district court has ruled.

In August 2010, Taylor Bell — then a senior at Itawamba Agricultural School — composed, sang and posted a rap song about two coaches at his school. He disseminated it to more than 1,300 friends on Facebook and posted it on YouTube.

The song accused the coaches of improper contact with female students and featured lyrics such as “looking down girls’ shirts / drool running down your mouth / messing with wrong one / going to get a pistol down your mouth.”

After learning of the song, school officials removed Bell from class in January 2011. The principal and others accused Bell of making threats and false allegations. Bell denied that his lyrics were threats and contended his statements about the coaches were true.

A week later, school officials suspended Bell indefinitely. A disciplinary committee concluded that Bell should be suspended for seven days and then placed in alternative school for five weeks. The Itawamba School Board approved this punishment on Feb. 7, 2011.

On Feb. 14, 2011, Taylor’s mother, Dora Bell, filed a lawsuit on behalf of her son and herself. She contended that school officials violated Taylor’s First Amendment rights and her 14th Amendment due-process rights in infringing upon her liberty in rearing her child.

On March 14, 2012, U.S. District Court Judge Neal Biggers granted the school defendants summary judgment and rejected the Bells’ claims in his opinion in Bell v. Itawamba County School Board.

He reasoned that Taylor’s free-speech claims were governed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s seminal free-speech case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969). In Tinker, the Court ruled that school officials can restrict student speech if they can reasonably forecast that the student speech will cause a substantial disruption of school activities. Bell argued that Tinker should not be applied to off-campus speech, pointing out that Tinker involved a case where students wore black peace armbands to school.

However, Biggers ruled that Tinker applied to on-campus or off-campus speech that disrupted or likely could disrupt school. He wrote:

“In terms of foreseeable material or substantial disruption, it is reasonably foreseeable that a public high school student’s song (1) that levies charges of serious sexual misconduct against two teachers using vulgar and threatening language and (2) is published on Facebook.com to at least 1,300 friends, many of whom are fellow students, and the unlimited Internet audience on YouTube.com, would cause a material and substantial disruption at school.”

The judge also found that the song lyrics did cause an actual disruption, citing testimony of the coaches that the lyrics adversely affected their teaching because students were wary or fearful of them.

Biggers also rejected Dora Bell’s due-process arguments, noting that the punishment of her son was based on the school’s “compelling interest of a legitimate maintenance of school order.”

“We are going to appeal,” said Scott W. Colom, Bell’s attorney. “The court did not address our argument that the references to violence in the lyrics in the song were literary in nature and could not be taken seriously.  The song mentioned two teachers and one of those teachers at a preliminary hearing actually said, ‘This is just music,’ and didn’t take it seriously.”

“It’s hard to believe the school acted out of a fear of violence when they didn’t search him after hearing the [song], check his locker for weapons, or contact the police about it,” Colom added. “In fact, after hearing the song, the principal gave him a ride home, and they allowed him to return to school the following week … and stay for the remainder of the day before suspending him.”

Benjamin E. Griffith, one of the attorneys for the school board and the other school defendants, told the First Amendment Center Online: “We anticipate an appeal, because the plaintiff’s attorney has said so.”  He said he was prepared to defend his clients and the judgment by the district judge.

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