A Mississippi federal district court summarily dismissed a case against a school district and its officials for disciplining a student who had posted an invective and threat-filled rap song on his Facebook page and on YouTube. Taylor Bell, a senior at Itawamba Agricultural High School, composed, sang, and recorded a rap song that he then posted on to Facebook so that it could be viewed by his over 1,300 Facebook friends and then went on to publish the song on YouTube. The vulgar song accuses two of the school’s coaches of having inappropriate contact with underage female students. According to court documents, “the last two verses include the phrases:(1) ‘looking down girls’ shirts / drool running down your mouth / messing with wrong one / going to get a pistol down your mouth’ and (2) ‘middle fingers up if you can’t stand that nigga / middle fingers up if you want to cap that nigga.’”
In Bell v. Itawamba County School Board, Judge Neal Biggers upheld the seven day suspension and administrative transfer levied by the school upon discovering the song. Applying the Tinker standard, the court found that
Taylor Bell’s song caused a material and/or substantial disruption and it was reasonably foreseeable that such a disruption would occur. The song is not protected by the First Amendment, and the school did not err in punishing Bell for publishing it to the public. Therefore, Taylor Bell’s claim that his First Amendment rights were violated by the school should be dismissed with prejudice.
This is another in string of federal cases where student off-campus speech has been held actionable by the courts. Under Tinker, "conduct by a student, in class or out of it" which "materially disrupt classwork or involves substantial disorder or invasion of rights of others is, of course, not immunized by the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech." The court noted that Tinker's material or substantial disruption standard has been expanded to allow speech to be regulated where such issues are only foreseeable, not having yet occurred.
In reaching its holding the court applied the following test:
(1) whether Taylor Bell’s song caused or tended to cause a material and/or substantial disruption at school or (2) whether it was reasonably foreseeable to school officials that the song would cause a material and/or substantial disruption at school.
Applying this test, the court found that the song had created actual disruption at the school. Coach Wildmon, one of the coaches about whom the song was penned, first heard about it while teaching his class. His wife had learned and heard of the song and texted him from her cell phone. Upon receiving the text, the coach turned to three seniors sitting in his class and asked if they had heard the song. Replying affirmatively, one of the students played the song for him using his cell phone. The coach testified that he felt threatened by the lyrics threatening to kill him in the song and that his "teaching style had been adversely affected" due to his belief that now students suspected him of inappropriate behavior.
The court also found that disruption was foreseeable where 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.
Gregory R. Branch is an educational attorney in Orange County, California. If you feel that your child has been unconstitutionally disciplined for exercising their right to free speech, please contact Mr. Branch at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (714) 856-1166.