Rap song against coaches gets student suspended (decision reversed in 2014)
Taylor Bell was a senior at Itawamba Agricultural School in Mississippi. Unhappy with two of his coaches, he wrote and sang a rap song that he posted on Facebook and YouTube. Once word spread and the coaches heard the song, Taylor was suspended from school for seven days and transferred to an alternative school for five weeks. This happened in January, 2011.
The song Taylor wrote can be read here from the Student Press Law Center website. It was agreed that there were no allegations of racism in his use of the word “nigga” throughout the song. Although Taylor wrote and published the song away from school and on his own time, the school board found that it constituted “harassment and intimidation of teachers and possible threats against teachers.” Consequently, the discipline was imposed.
Taylor and his mother filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging a violation of free speech. On March 14, 2012, the U.S. District Court ruled in favor of the school and upheld the action they took in this case. The court wrote in its opinion the following: “In clearly vulgar language, the rap song criticizes two coaches at school – Coach Wildmon and Coach Rainey – by alleging that both of them had improper contact with female students. 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.”
Based on the free speech test stated in the Tinker decision of 1969, the court found that Taylor’s rap song was not protected by the First Amendment and that “the school did not err in punishing Bell for publishing it to the public.” The court found in part that Tinker’s “material or substantial disruption” factor was met since one coach testified that he felt threatened by the references to killing him in the song. Taylor’s lawyer commented that an appeal to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals would be taken.
In the meantime, Taylor graduated from high school and is attending classes at a community college. Based on what you know about student free speech and from reading other stories like this on AsktheJudge.info, what are his chances of succeeding on appeal? Do you think the school’s discipline was appropriate or was Taylor’s off-campus speech protected by the First Amendment? Is it different because he wrote his song away from school?
AsktheJudge.info predicts that Taylor will win on appeal. A strict interpretation of Tinker renders his speech, as offensive as it is, to come under the protections of the First Amendment. If he loses before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, this may be the case that the Supreme Court will accept to decide the gray area regarding student online free speech.
Update: In December, 2014, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court and ruled in Taylor’s favor. The court found that the song did not cause “substantial disruption” at school and that the school’s decision to suspend Taylor was “legally incorrect.” We’re glad that Taylor and his family stayed in the fight and saw justice served.
Update: We called this one wrong. In August, 2015, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed its December, 2014 decision and ruled in favor of the school. They affirmed the district court’s ruling that the school administrators reasonably understood the speech to be threatening, harassing and intimidating the teachers, and that the song caused a “substantial disruption” at school.
But that’s not the final word on this case. In December, 2015, the Student Press Law Center, representing Taylor, asked the Supreme Court to hear the case and review the Fifth Circuit’s ruling. The final word: on February 29, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to hear Taylor’s case. That leaves the decision of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in place, favoring the school district.