December 5, 2012 9:08:02 AM
NEW ORLEANS -- A Mississippi school district contends it was justified to suspend a student for recording a rap song that educators believed would disrupt classes and was a threat to teachers.
However, attorneys told a federal appeals panel Monday that Taylor Bell was exercising his free speech rights when he posted a rap song online that criticized two coaches whom he accused of misconduct toward female students.
Ben Griffith of Cleveland, Miss., representing the Itawamba County School Board, told the three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that Bell knew he would cause a disruption at school once the rap song reached his Facebook friends and was posted on YouTube.
While Griffith acknowledged the rap song was produced off-campus, he argued it was not protected speech.
"YouTube is available to the world," he said. "You can't compartmentalize Facebook when he sent it to his friend who brought it to the attention of school officials. It reached the targets (Bell wanted) and created a substantial disruption.
"This was not protected speech in that it named specific individuals, targeted specific individuals. This is not light stuff. The capability or ability to carry out the threat is not the issue."
The student's attorney, Scott Colom of Columbus, said school officials cited two lyrics out of the entire song to justify the suspension.
"Mr. Bell has a First Amendment right to speak off campus," Colom told the court. "The vast majority of the song was about wrongdoing at the school."
While Colom did not argue that some lyrics could be considered offensive, he said the school district had "focused on two lyrics and they have to, to make their case."
Bell wrote the song -- "PSK The Truth Needs to be Told" -- after he said several young women told him that two coaches at the school were behaving inappropriately toward female students. According to the complaint, this includes "inappropriate contact with intimate body parts of female students." Bell said he also witnessed inappropriate conduct firsthand. Those allegations were never substantiated, and charges were never filed.
The song was posted to Bell's Facebook profile around Jan. 3, 2011, according to the lawsuit. A disciplinary committee suspended Bell on Jan. 25, 2011, and the county school board upheld the suspension on Feb. 7, 2011.
U.S. District Judge Neal B. Biggers Jr. in Mississippi ruled in March that the school board's actions were correct and that Bell's song's lyrics "in fact caused a material and/or substantial disruption" at school.
Colom said the school district's arguments pointed to lyrics in which Bell rapped about "putting a pistol down your mouth" or "put your middle finger up if you want to cap" an individual, which were nothing more than "serious expression ... about misconduct that the five female students told Mr. Bell about."
"In my opinion, it would be dangerous to stop students from exposing wronging doing by school officials," Colom said.
In a Des Moines, Iowa, school case in 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court found that students had the right to free speech within schools as long as it did not disrupt the learning process. The case was cited by both sides in Monday's arguments. Colom said the decision protected off-campus activity, while Griffith said the decision came at time when there were no computers with almost instantaneous communication.