Appeals Court to rehear case of former Mississippi student punished for posting rap song online

MISSISSIPPI — An appeals court has decided it will rehear the case of a former Mississippi student whom school officials punished for posting online a profanity-filled rap alleging two school employees had inappropriate contact with other students.

In December 2014, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed a district court ruling that said Itawamba Agricultural High School could punish Taylor Bell for posting the song to Facebook and YouTube in January 2011. Bell created the homemade rap video after girls at the school claimed two male coaches made sexual comments about their bodies.

The court order, which was issued on Friday, said the court plans to rehear the case in May.

Scott Colom, Bell’s attorney, said the appeals court’s most recent ruling is now withdrawn and all 15 Fifth Circuit judges will review the case and determine a new outcome. The case was previously heard by a three-judge panel with two judges voting in Bell’s favor.

“It could mean for my client that his successful appeal could be reversed by the entire Fifth Circuit, and if that were to happen, I’m sure he would consider going to the Supreme Court,” Colom said.

Bell was suspended from school on January 2011, after administrators heard the song, saying it threatened the teachers. The suspension was upheld by the Itawamba County Board of Education. Bell and his mother filed suit against the superintendent and the school’s principal, arguing the suspension violated Bell’s First Amendment rights.

According to the appeals court ruling, the school failed to prove Bell’s song caused a “substantial disruption” to the operation of the school, adding that the district court had misinterpreted the Tinker standard.

In the 1988 ruling of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that students “do not shed their constitutional freedoms at the schoolhouse gate.” Under that ruling, school officials may not censor student speech unless it causes a substantial or material disruption to the educational operation of the school. Courts have been divided about whether Tinker covers off-campus speech, an issue that the Supreme Court has not addressed.

Benjamin Griffith, the school district’s attorney, declined to comment on the active case.

In June 2012, the Student Press Law Center filed an amicus brief in the case, arguing in favor of Bell’s First Amendment right to rap about the complaints against teachers.

“It’s an exciting case,” Colom said. “It’s an exciting development. Of course, it means that my client may lose in the short term, but I’ve always thought that the appeal raised important constitutional issues that the Supreme Court has never clarified about the rights of students away from school and the power of the schools over student speech away from school.”

Contact SPLC staff writer Mariana Viera by email or at (202) 478-1926.