High Court Declines Appeals on Violent Student Rap, Other Education Cases

By Mark Walsh — February 29, 2016 3 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear a Mississippi high school student’s appeal of a lower-court ruling that his off-campus rap recording that alluded to shooting two teachers was not protected by the First Amendment.

The decision came without comment from the justices on their first formal orders since the Feb. 13 death of Justice Antonin Scalia.

The court also refused to hear the appeal of a Tennessee school district whose decision to outsource its alternative education program to a private Christian school was struck down by two lower federal courts as a violation of the First Amendment’s prohibition against government establishment of religion.

Also, the justices declined to step into a New Jersey dispute over whether the state was required by one of its own statutes to increase state and employee contributions to its pension system for teachers and other employees.

The high court did not act on appeals of a decision by the Colorado’s highest court that struck down a local voucher program because it aided religious schools in violation of the state constitution. The justices could still grant those appeals, or it could be holding them for a related case they will hear next term. Those cases are consolidated under the caption Doyle v. Taxpayers for Public Education (Case No. 15-556).

Here is more detail on Monday’s actions.

Off-Campus Rap

In Bell v. Itawamba County School Board (No. 15-666), the appeal involved student Taylor Bell’s rap song and video, posted on Facebook and YouTube in 2011, that referenced a character attacking two teachers with guns. Bell’s lyrics included a character boasting to one of the teachers, “I’m going to get you with my rueger [sic],” a misspelled reference to a type of gun. Another line said, “going to get a pistol down your mouth.”

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans, ruled 13-3 that school officials reasonably concluded that one rap video made by Bell was directed at the school community and threatened the two teachers.

In his appeal to the Supreme Court, Bell had drawn support from the Student Press Law Center as well several professional rap artists, who argued in a friend-of-the-court brief that hip hop and “gangsta rap” are often misunderstood.

“The decision by the court of appeals punishes a student for his art—and perpetuates unfair and inaccurate stereotypes—by mischaracterizing often-used rap music phrases as ‘threats,’” said the brief signed by multiple artists and professors, including one known as Killer Mike.

Outsourcing to Private Schools

In Kucera v. Jefferson County Board of School Commissioners (No. 15-553), the justices were asked to examine a Tennessee school district’s use of a private Christian school as its alternative education provider for students with disciplinary problems.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, held last year that the public school students from the Jefferson County, Tenn., district were served in a day program at the private Kingswood School in Bean Station, Tenn., that offered secular instruction and only minimal exposure to religion, and thus the arrangement did not violate the establishment clause.

New Jersey Pensions

The justices declined to hear appeals from the New Jersey Education Association and other unions in that state of a New Jersey Supreme Court ruling that went against them in a dispute over a 2011 state law designed to bolster public-employee pension systems.

The statute provided that members of the state pension system have a contractual right to have the state contribute a prescribed amount to the system each year. Republican Gov. Chris Christie signed the bill into law, but in a subsequent budget, he proposed contributing only $681 million to the pension systems rather than the $2.25 billion called for under the statute.

The NJEA and other unions sued the state under the contract clauses of the state and federal constitutions. While a lower state court ruled for them, the state’s highest court reversed, holding that the state constitution’s debt-limitation clause prohibits the creation, without voter approval, of a legally enforceable financial obligation that would bind future legislatures.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined without comment to hear the unions’ appeals in Burgos v. New Jersey (No. 15-293) and New Jersey Education Association v. New Jersey (No. 15-302).

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.