FLORIDA — Three seniors at Branden River High Schoolwho were involved in writing and singing controversial rap lyrics will bepunished by not receiving their diplomas with their classmates atSaturday’s graduation ceremony. Administrators prohibited them fromwalking across the stage and disciplined several other students for writing thelyrics that made their way from MySpace into the classroom.
A teacher at the high school discovered the music when she overheard astudent playing a profanity-filled song for other students from his iPod. Sheconfiscated the iPod and took the student to administrators for questioning. Itwas then they learned the song was one of several that students recorded andposted online. The rap songs contained “profane” threats against theprincipal, assistant principal, and head custodian, said Superintendent RogerDearing.
Dearing said the lyrics described weapons students would use to kill theschool officials and detailed plans to sexually assault the principal’sdaughter. Lyrics of other songs included profanities directed toward students atrival Lakewood Ranch High School.
The students responsible are being punished according to their levels ofinvolvement under the school’s code of conduct, Dearing said, declining torelease any names. Those punishments range from work detail and Saturday schoolto suspension and possible expulsion.
“With things such as Columbine, I don’t think there’s anypublic school system that’s taking any threats of violence lightly,”
Dearing said. “This is not a First Amendment right, that you have freedomof speech, because when it comes to threatening the health, safety, and welfareof other people, it just doesn’t fit.”
Before administrators imposed sanctions, they consulted with John Bowen,the school board attorney.
“They asked me what they could do, and once I saw the lyrics thatcontained the threats of deadly physical violence, I told them,” he said.”We don’t tolerate that kind of conduct, and that is not protectedspeech.”
The U.S. Supreme Court recognized in Tinker v. Des Moines IndependentCommunity School District that student expression is constitutionallyprotected unless it seriously physically disrupts normal school activities orinvades the rights of others. But courts have held that some forms of speech,such as obscenity or true threats, fall outside the First Amendment’s protectionsentirely.
The Manatee County Sheriff’s Office concluded the Braden River HighSchool songs did not break any laws and will not bring charges against any ofthe students. But Dearing said the punishments were just because the songs wereplayed at school and the lyrics spoke of plausible bodily harm.
“To us, this was not a question of freedom of speech on the Internet,because when a threat is made and has the potential to be carried out,we’re going to take it seriously,” he said. “I think theteachers felt that this is a threat. Let it get out of control, and what comesnext?”
A federal court ruled last year that schools could impose discipline onstudents who issued threats online, upholding a student’s suspension forsharing an AOL Instant Messenger buddy icon that depicted his teacher beingshot. The court ruled in Wisniewski v. Board of Education of the WeedsportCentral School District that the student’s off-campus speech couldcreate a foreseeable risk of substantial disruption — but did not have tobe a true threat to be disruptive.
This standard gives administrators some leeway in punishing student speechwithout determining the likelihood that violence will result.
And that leeway may result in administrators censoring all student art thatmight contain any violent element at all, said Adam Goldstein, Student Press LawCenter attorney advocate.
“School officials react to these so-called threats by censoringthem,” he said. “They rarely react by attempting to get the allegedthreat reviewed by police or getting a psychologist for the person who createdthe art.”
Dearing said he would hesitate to call this music art. He added that nearlyall of the students’ parents were agreeable to the discipline, becausethey too found it so profane.
“One father actually started crying when he saw his son was capableof that stuff on the Internet,” he said. “This went far beyond kidsjust posting profanity on MySpace.”