JACKSON, Mississippi — It's back to court for a Mississippi high school student who says he was exercising his right of free speech when he posted a rap song online criticizing two coaches he accused of misconduct toward female students.
A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last December overturned Taylor Bell's suspension, ruling that his actions occurred off school grounds. On Monday, the full appeals court announced it would review the case with oral arguments on May 11.
Attorneys for the Itawamba County school system petitioned for the full court hearing.
"The First Amendment does not insulate a public school student from disciplinary action when a school board is confronted with off-campus, online speech that threatens, harasses and intimidates school teachers who have been singled out for such abuse," school district attorney Benjamin E. Griffith wrote in briefs.
School officials said that Taylor Bell did not cooperate when they tried to investigate the allegations against the coaches and that 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.
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.
Court papers say Bell wrote the song in December 2010 and put it on his Facebook page Jan. 3, 2011. A disciplinary committee suspended Bell on Jan. 25, 2011, and the county school board upheld the suspension about two weeks after 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.
Bell's attorneys had argued the school's authority over student behavior ends "at the schoolhouse gate."
Griffith, in the school district's brief, argued the court should recognize the school system has a duty "not only to ameliorate the harmful effects of disruptions, but to prevent those disruptions from happening in the first place."
Bell's attorney, Scott W. Colom, said other courts have recognized the distinction between school's authority over on-campus versus off-campus speech and the heightened constitutional rights students enjoy when they speak off school grounds.
"It is a manipulative red-herring tactic to wave the flag of 'school safety' in this case," Colom said. "Nothing about the school district's decision to suspend Mr. Bell was motivated by a concern that Mr. Bell posed an ongoing threat to safety."
The 5th Circuit panel, in its 2-1 decision, found the school system failed to prove Bell's song caused a substantial disruption of school work or discipline.
Appeals Judge Rhesa Barksdale, in a dissent, said Bell wanted the song to be heard by the school community and it was. He said the school system found that because Bell threatened, harassed, and intimidated the two coaches, the student caused a severe disruption.