PENNSYLVANIA — A student expelled from middle school for posting rap lyrics on the Internet from his home computer returned to school last week after a judge ruled in his favor.
Anthony Latour, who was allowed to start ninth grade at Riverside High School, was arrested in April on charges of making “terroristic threats” and harassment involving what police said are threatening rap lyrics.
Criminal charges against Latour are pending in Beaver County. A judge there closed the proceedings to the press and the public last week.
After the arrest, the Riverside Beaver School District in Pennsylvania expelled Latour from the district’s schools for the rest of last year and all of this year.
Chief Judge Donetta Ambrose of the U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh granted a preliminary injunction Aug. 23 that temporarily overturned Latour’s expulsion, allowing him to return to school while the case is in court.
The ruling comes after the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit against the school district on behalf of Latour in early August.
“This is a great decision,” said attorney Kim Watterson of the ruling granting preliminary injunction. “It reaffirmed very important, straightforward First Amendment principles.”
Watterson, an attorney from the Pittsburgh law firm Reed Smith, is a cooperating lawyer for the ACLU and is representing Latour in the federal lawsuit.
“[U]nquestionably, the loss of First Amendment freedoms, even for a minimal amount of time, constitutes irreparable injury,” Ambrose wrote in her opinion. “Furthermore, there is a strong public interest in protecting First Amendment rights as guaranteed by the United States Constitution.”
While the rap songs contain some violent language, they are not “true threats,” and are thus protected by the First Amendment, Ambrose wrote.
The school district is disappointed with the decision and several parents are “very concerned” about their children’s safety, according to a written statement provided by David Parry, the superintendent for the Riverside Beaver County School District.
“Sometimes, perhaps it is better to take words too seriously than to dismiss them altogether,” the statement said. “In this era of heightened school security, it is important for school officials to take appropriate action to maintain a safe environment.”
Parry declined to comment on the issue outside of the statement and diverted all questions to the district’s attorney. Attempts to contact an attorney with the school district were unsuccessful.
The following is a sample from a song Latour, who goes by the rap alias “emceeaccident,” wrote titled “Actin’ Fast ft. Grimey”: “So watch what you’re saying, I’m everywhere son/And the word of mouth is that I’m carrying guns/Now that I’m coming for you — what the fuck you going to do/I come double with the pump tons of slugs that will punish you.”
Although the lyrics contain violent language, Watterson said the speech must be evaluated in context, asking whether the speaker actually intended to communicate a threat.
“You have to look at the words in the context of which they are uttered,” she said. “Here, they are words in a rap song, which is (one of the reasons) why these statements are not true threats.
“Schools do not have unfettered authority to punish students for speech that is constitutionally protected.”
Watterson said Ambrose’s opinion strengthens the idea that a school district’s authority over student speech is limited when the speech takes place outside of school. In this case, Latour wrote his rap songs at home and posted them on his home computer. There was no evidence that Latour ever brought the lyrics to school or distributed them there, according to the court opinion.
In addition to rejecting the school’s claim that the songs constituted “true threats,” the court also assessed the schools claim that the lyrics created a material and substantial disruption to the school day and thus could be censored under the standard created by the Supreme Court in the 1969 case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District.
Student press advocates have said the Tinker standard was intended to apply to only speech that takes place on campus. Applying the standard to off-campus speech gives school officials too much authority over students and diminishes the rights of parents to regulate their children’s expressive activities.
But the line between speech in school and speech out of school is blurred by new technology, said Ken Gormley, a professor at Duquesne University School of Law.
“I don’t think you can limit these school speech cases any more to the physical domains of the public school property, because in many cases it’s quite possible to speak as if you were there from another location,” Gormley said.
Gormley said he thinks courts should be “particularly wary” of restricting speech when it occurs outside the school premises. But he said courts should still have the option if the speech is targeted at a school audience and causes a substantial disruption under the Tinker standard.
In this case, however, Ambrose opined that Latour’s lyrics did not disrupt school activities.
“I believe she reached a correct decision in this case,” Gormley said of Ambrose’s decision. “One could make the argument that as long as you can get it from the school premises [on a computer] that it is all of a sudden subject to the same regulation as if it was produced in school. But that would be a dangerous approach to take.”
Watterson said assuming the school district does not appeal the preliminary injunction, there are three things left the court needs to do: make the preliminary injunction permanent, determine damages and determine the constitutionality of the school policy used to expel Latour.
The district has not yet filed an appeal, but district attorneys have 30 days from the order to do so, Watterson said.
-By Evan Mayor
- Latour v. Riverside Beaver School District, No. 05-1076 (W.D. Pa. Aug. 23, 2005).
For more lyrics by Latour and a copy of the Latour Plantiff’s brief:
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