Education

Judge Denies Speech Protection to Student’s Rap Song

By Mark Walsh — March 15, 2012 2 min read
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A Mississippi student’s rap song on Facebook and YouTube targeting two of his high school’s coaches as having had improper contact with female students was not protected by the First Amendment, a federal district judge has ruled.

The judge upheld a seven-day suspension and a transfer to an alternative school for five weeks for Taylor Bell, who was a senior at Itawamba Agricultural School in 2011 when he composed and published his rap song.

“The court finds that Taylor Bell’s song caused a material and/or substantial disruption and it was reasonably foreseeable that such a disruption would occur,” U.S. District Judge Neal B. Biggers, of Oxford, Miss., said in his March 14 opinion in Bell v. Itawamba County School Board. “The song is not protected by the First Amendment, and the school did not err in punishing Bell for publishing it to the public.”

The song contains multiple vulgarities, and its lyrics are quoted at length at page 8 of the opinion. The lyrics suggest one coach is a “pervert” who calls female students “sexy” and another is “f---ing with juveniles.”

The song also contains these lyrics: “looking down girls’ shirts / drool running down your mouth / messing with wrong one / going to get a pistol down your mouth.”

After the Itawamba school board affirmed Bell’s punishment and ruled that he had “threatened, harassed, and intimidated school employees” with the song, Bell and his mother, Dora Bell, sued. The suit alleged that the school discipline violated Bell’s First Amendment free speech rights and the mother’s parental rights under the 14th Amendment’s due-process clause.

Judge Biggers interpreted the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1969 decision on student speech rights, in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, as permitting school officials to regulate off-campus conduct causing substantial or material disruption at school.

“In this case, Taylor Bell clearly intended to publish to the public the content of the song as evidenced by his posting of the song on Facebook.com with at least 1,300 ‘friends,’ many of whom were fellow students, and to an unlimited, world-wide audience on YouTube.com,” the judge said. “Accordingly, the Tinker standard applies to Taylor Bell’s song without regard to whether it was written, produced, and published outside of school.”

The judge agreed with school authorities that the song threatened, harassed, and intimidated school employees. The judge also held that the song caused a “material and/or substantial disruption” at school.

For example, one coach targeted in the song testified in a court hearing that “he felt threatened by the references to killing him in the song,” as the judge put it.

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

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