Bell v. Itawamba County School Board

799 F.3d 379 (5th Cir. 2015)

In August 2011, Taylor Bell, then a high school senior at Itawamba Agricultural High school, recorded a rap song that accused two coaches at the school of engaging in sexual misconduct with female classmates and friends of Bell’s. Bell shared the video, which used vulgar language and contemplated that the coaches might face retaliatory violence, with his Facebook friends and posted it on YouTube. After learning of the video, the school’s principal and the district’s superintendent accused Bell of making up the allegations. Bell was suspended and later sent to an alternative school. He appealed the disciplinary ruling to the school board and lost, and filed a federal lawsuit alleging First Amendment violations. A federal district court upheld the punishment, saying that off-campus student speech can be censored or punished if the speech causes a substantial disruption of school activity, essentially expanding the 1969 ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District to apply to both on- and off-campus speech.

The SPLC filed an amicus brief in defense of Bell, writing that, while in poor taste, his speech — “an attempt to engage the public’s attention on a matter of grave concern, the sexual harassment of schoolchildren by educators” — did not cause a substantial disruption to the school. The SPLC’s brief, which was written with the help of attorney Scott Sternberg, warned that the district court’s “overbroad” decision could be used to punish well-meaning criticism of school officials purely for the sake of image control, including investigative or editorial journalistic work. In addition, the SPLC disagreed with the district court’s expansion of Tinker, writing that students need a safe space in which to criticize the actions of school officials. Finally, the SPLC brief argued that because the school has the job of educating students on issues such as free speech, it is against their mission to deny them the right to criticize public officials.

In December 2014, a panel of three judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit struck down the district court’s ruling and issued a summary judgement in Bell’s favor. Two out of three judges ruled that the song did not cause “substantial disruption” at school. 

The court decided to rehear Bell’s case in February 2015. In August 2015, the court ruled in favor of the Mississippi school district. The court affirmed the district court’s ruling that the school administrators reasonably understood the speech to be threatening, harassing and intimidating the teachers, and that the song caused a “substantial disruption” at school. Read the August 2015 ruling.

In November 2015, the attorneys for Bell petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review the Fifth Circuit’s decision, but were denied review in February 2016. Read the petition to the Supreme Court