MISSISSIPPI – Afederal judge sided with school officials Thursday in a free speech lawsuitbrought 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 HighSchool coaches and their interactions with young female students – whichallegedly included flirting and inappropriate contact, according to Bell’slawsuit.
Bell produced the song and posted it to the Internet whileoff of school property. After one of the coaches learned of the song, Bell wassuspended and then sent to an alternative school.
U.S. District Court Judge Neal Biggers ruled in favor of theschool district, citing Tinker v. DesMoines Independent Community School District and calling the song adisruption.
“The U.S. Supreme Court in Tinker specifically ruled that off-campus conduct causing materialor substantial disruption at school can be regulated by the school,” Biggerswrote.
Bell’s attorney, Scott Colom, said he would appeal thedecision.
“We believe the judge, in all due respect, was wrong on thelaw and wrong on the facts,” Colom said. “I think that interpretation of the Tinker standard is wrong and I don’tthink the decision was meant for schools to regulate and punish students forspeech out of school.”
Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press LawCenter said the ruling could allow schools to punish “whistleblowers” who claimmisconduct by teachers. LoMonte said the ruling is “outlandishly wrong” inquoting Tinker.
“In the first place, Tinkerwas about on-campus speech,” LoMonte said. “It in no way, shape or formaddressed school jurisdiction off campus…. There’s not the barest hint in Tinker that school jurisdiction couldfollow a student off campus.”
Itawamba County School Board attorney Michele Floyd said thesong caused a disruption in school because students were talking about the songand the teachers testified it affected their learning style. Floyd said thedistrict is pleased with the court’s ruling.
“When a student expresses themselves off campus and thatexpression is reasonably foreseeable to cause a disruption at school, schoolswill be better equipped to punish the students for the off- campus speech,”Floyd said.
Colom said students signed an affidavit affirming theallegations 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 wantto be adamant about that. Nothing to substantiate.”
The judge referenced several cases where student speech wasconsidered violent or a “true threat,” but Colum said Bell’s rap didn’tconstitute a threat.
The song did include the lyrics, “fucking with the wrong onegonna get a pistol down your mouth,” and “middle fingers up if you wanna capthat nigga.”
“If the lyrics were so violent, is it reasonable to believethat the school reassigned him to another school instead of calling thepolice?” Colom said. “They never called the police and never treated Bell likehe 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 aboutmoney but about vindicating Bell’s First Amendment rights. He said Bell hassince 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 veryraw offensive language that I’m sure judges find troubling, but they have to becareful about the lines they’re drawing,” LoMonte said. “There is no way thatthis decision will uphold under scrutiny.”