Judge upholds punishment of Miss. student who posted rap song on Facebook

Court holds that Tinker applies to off-campus speech

MISSISSIPPI – A federal judge sided with school officials Thursday in a free speech lawsuit brought by a student disciplined for posting a song on Facebook and YouTube.

Taylor Bell, then a high school senior, produced a rap song, “PSK The Truth Need to be Told,” criticizing two Itawamba Agricultural High School coaches and their interactions with young female students – which allegedly included flirting and inappropriate contact, according to Bell’s lawsuit.

Bell produced the song and posted it to the Internet while off of school property. After one of the coaches learned of the song, Bell was suspended and then sent to an alternative school.

U.S. District Court Judge Neal Biggers ruled in favor of the school district, citing Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District and calling the song a disruption.

“The U.S. Supreme Court in Tinker specifically ruled that off-campus conduct causing material or substantial disruption at school can be regulated by the school,” Biggers wrote.

Bell’s attorney, Scott Colom, said he would appeal the decision.

“We believe the judge, in all due respect, was wrong on the law and wrong on the facts,” Colom said. “I think that interpretation of the Tinker standard is wrong and I don’t think the decision was meant for schools to regulate and punish students for speech out of school.”

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center said the ruling could allow schools to punish “whistleblowers” who claim misconduct by teachers. LoMonte said the ruling is “outlandishly wrong” in quoting Tinker.

“In the first place, Tinker was about on-campus speech,” LoMonte said. “It in no way, shape or form addressed school jurisdiction off campus.... There’s not the barest hint in Tinker that school jurisdiction could follow a student off campus.”

Itawamba County School Board attorney Michele Floyd said the song caused a disruption in school because students were talking about the song and the teachers testified it affected their learning style. Floyd said the district is pleased with the court’s ruling.

“When a student expresses themselves off campus and that expression is reasonably foreseeable to cause a disruption at school, schools will be better equipped to punish the students for the off- campus speech,” Floyd said.

Colom said students signed an affidavit affirming the allegations made against the coaches. Floyd said she had not see the affidavit.

“Pertaining to the allegations made against the coaches, there had been nothing to substantiate those allegations,” Floyd said. “I want to be adamant about that. Nothing to substantiate.”

The judge referenced several cases where student speech was considered violent or a “true threat,” but Colum said Bell’s rap didn’t constitute a threat.

The song did include the lyrics, “fucking with the wrong one gonna get a pistol down your mouth,” and “middle fingers up if you wanna cap that nigga.”

“If the lyrics were so violent, is it reasonable to believe that the school reassigned him to another school instead of calling the police?” Colom said. “They never called the police and never treated Bell like he was dangerous. After he heard the song, the principal drove Bell home.”

Colom is asking for $1 in damages and said this case isn’t about money but about vindicating Bell’s First Amendment rights. He said Bell has since graduated and is attending classes at a local community college.

In regards to the appeals process, LoMonte said the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is not known for being friendly when it comes to students’ freedom of expression.

“Obviously this particular student’s speech has some very raw offensive language that I’m sure judges find troubling, but they have to be careful about the lines they’re drawing,” LoMonte said. “There is no way that this decision will uphold under scrutiny.”

Itawamba Agricultural High School, MIssissippi, news