In this 2012 decision, a divided federal appeals court ruled that Mississippi school officials did not violate the First Amendment when they punished a high school student for posting a rap recording on Facebook and YouTube that criticized two Caucasian high school football coaches for allegedly sexually inappropriate comments toward African-American female students.
Student suspended for rap song criticizing coaches
Student Taylor Bell, through his persona T-Bizzle, posted his recording after hearing several female students complain about the behavior of the two coaches. The song featured language such as “betta watch your back/I’m a serve this nigga, like I serve the junkies with some crack.”
One of the coach’s wives heard the song and contacted her husband, who reported it to an assistant principal. School officials sent Bell home that day. Later, the school superintendent suspended Bell for “alleged threatening intimidation and/or harassment of one or more school teachers.”
After a hearing, a disciplinary committee recommended to the school board that Bell face a seven-day suspension and be placed in an alternative school for the remainder of the grading period. The school board upheld the punishment.
Bell sued in federal court, contending school officials violated his First Amendment free-speech rights. A federal district court ruled in favor of the school defendants, finding that Bell’s rap song constituted “harassment and intimidation of teachers and possible threats against teachers, and threatened, harassed, and intimidated school employees.”
Panel ruled in favor of Bell
Bell appealed to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. A divided three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit reversed and ruled in favor of Bell. The panel majority determined that school officials violated Bell’s First Amendment rights. The majority reasoned that the rap song was not a true threat or substantially disruptive under Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969).
5th Circuit found the recording was threatening
However, the school board successfully sought en banc review. The en banc majority determined that school officials “reasonably could find Bell’s rap recording threatened, harassed, and intimidated the teachers; and a substantial disruption reasonably could have been forecast, as a matter of law.” The majority emphasized increased concerns over school violence. The majority also reasoned that Tinker applied to Bell’s off-campus recording, because Bell intentionally directed his speech toward the school community.
Dissenters discussed students’ Internet expression rights
Four justices wrote separate dissenting opinions. The two most substantive dissents were by Judge James L. Dennis and Judge Edward Prado. Dennis, who had authored the majority opinion at the three-judge panel level, wrote the most comprehensive dissent. He termed Bell a “student whistleblower,” adding that four female students had filed affidavits detailing incidents of sexual harassment by the coaches.
Dennis warned that the majority opinion “allows schools to police their students’ Internet expression anytime and anywhere — an unprecedented and unnecessary intrusion on students’ rights.” He warned that the majority opinion allowed school officials to punish Bell because his song offended and angered them.
Judge Edward Prado’s dissent emphasized the lack of uniformity in student online-speech cases. He believed that the majority had stretched precedent to apply it to “purely off-campus speech.” He warned that Tinker applied to student speech that takes place on campus and should be not reflexively applied to off-campus speech. He wrote that the “difficult issue of off-campus online speech will need to be addressed by the Supreme Court.”
Bell petitioned for U.S. Supreme Court review, but the Court denied review on Feb. 29, 2016.
David L. Hudson, Jr. is a law professor at Belmont who publishes widely on First Amendment topics. He is the author of a 12-lecture audio course on the First Amendment entitled Freedom of Speech: Understanding the First Amendment (Now You Know Media, 2018). He also is the author of many First Amendment books, including The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech (Thomson Reuters, 2012) and Freedom of Speech: Documents Decoded (ABC-CLIO, 2017). This article was originally published in 2017.