JACKSON, Mississippi — A Mississippi high school student was exercising his right of free speech when he posted a rap song online that criticized two coaches he accused of misconduct toward female students, a federal appeals court ruled Friday.
School officials in Itawamba County said Taylor Bell did not cooperate when they tried to investigate the allegations against the coaches, and he caused a major disruption at school by posting the video in early 2011. The accusations were never substantiated and charges were never filed. Bell was suspended for seven days and assigned to an alternative school for more than a month.
In a 2-1 ruling Friday, a panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Bell wasn't subject to school punishment because he wrote the song off-campus using a home computer and posted it online during non-school hours.
Court papers say he wrote the song in December 2010 and put it on his Facebook page on Jan. 3, 2011. A disciplinary committee suspended Bell on Jan. 25, 2011, and the county school board upheld the suspension about two weeks aft that.
Bell and his mother, Dora Bell, of Fulton, sued the county school district and officials at Itawamba Agricultural High School in 2011. A federal judge in Mississippi upheld the suspension, and Bell appealed that decision to the 5th Circuit in New Orleans.
The appeals court on Friday sent the case back to Mississippi for determination of damages and attorneys' fees.
Appeals Judge James L. Dennis said the school system failed to prove Bell's song caused a substantial disruption of school work or discipline.
Bell's attorneys had argued the school's authority over student behavior ends "at the schoolhouse gate."
"Because speech is often provocative and challenging, and may strike at prejudices and preconceptions and have profoundly unsettling effects ... the First Amendment protects speech against restriction or punishment by the government," Dennis said.
Appeals Judge Rhesa Barksdale, in a dissent, said the case should have been sent back to Mississippi for a trial.
Barksdale said Bell wanted the song to be heard by the school community and it was. He said the school system's finding that since Bell threatened, harassed, and intimidated the two coaches, the student caused a severe disruption.
He added: " ... there is no genuine dispute for whether the school board acted reasonably; it did."
Bell wrote the song, "PSK The Truth Needs to be Told," after he said several young women told him that two coaches at school were behaving inappropriately. According to Bell's lawsuit against the school district, this included "inappropriate contact with intimate body parts of female students." Bell said he also witnessed inappropriate conduct.
School officials said they became aware of the song after it was posted on Facebook and YouTube. School attorneys said Bell made no effort to distance himself from the school and included the coaches' names and posted the school's logo with the song. The coaches had to change how they taught because of the song, just one example of how the school environment was disrupted, officials said.