Thursday, August 20, 2015
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A federal court on Thursday upheld a Mississippi high school student's suspension for posting a song online criticizing two coaches, rejecting the student's argument that he was exercising his right to free speech.
The majority decision from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans said Taylor Bell wanted the song to be heard by the school community and that happened after he posted it to Facebook and YouTube. It added that Bell's song was posted to threaten, harass and intimidate the two coaches.
The Itawamba County school district suspended Bell for seven days in 2011. School officials said he did not cooperate when they tried to investigate the allegations he had made in the song and caused a major disruption at school by posting the video. The accusations against the coaches were never substantiated, and no criminal charges were filed against them.
Weeks after he was suspended, Bell and his mother, Dora Bell, sued the school district.
A federal judge in Mississippi upheld the suspension, and Bell appealed to the 5th Circuit.
Attorneys for Bell argued a school's authority over what students do ends "at the schoolhouse gate."
But 5th Circuit Judge Rhesa Barksdale, writing for the majority, said the suspension was justified because the school district was faced with "off-campus speech directed intentionally at the school community and reasonably understood by school officials to be threatening, harassing, and intimidating to a teacher."
"Although, under other circumstances, such communications might be protected speech under the First Amendment, off-campus threats, harassment, and intimidation directed at teachers create a tension between a student's free speech rights and a school official's duty to maintain discipline and protect the school community," Barksdale said in the opinion.
Judge James L. Dennis, in a dissent joined by three other judges, said the majority opinion "broadly proclaims that a public school board is constitutionally empowered to punish a student whistleblower for his purely off-campus Internet speech publicizing a matter of public concern."
"The majority opinion obliterates the historically significant distinction between the household and the schoolyard by permitting a school policy to supplant parental authority over the propriety of a child's expressive activities on the Internet outside of school, expanding schools' censorial authority from the campus and the teacher's classroom to the home and the child's bedroom," Dennis wrote.
Bell wrote the song, titled "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. Bell said he also witnessed inappropriate conduct firsthand.
School officials said they became aware of the song after it was posted online. 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.