By Jack Elliott Jr./The Associated Press
JACKSON — A high school student 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, his attorneys say.
However, school officials in Itawamba County say Taylor Bell , 18, did not cooperate when they tried to investigate the allegations and caused a major disruption at school by posting the video. The accusations against the coaches were never substantiated.
Taylor Bell was suspended for seven days and assigned to an alternative school for more than a month over the music video, and he is appealing that decision in court. A federal judge in Mississippi upheld the suspension, and Bell is now asking the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans to hear the case.
In documents filed ahead of a Dec. 3 hearing, attorneys for Bell say the school’s authority over what students do ends “at the schoolhouse gate.”
U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers Jr. said in his March ruling that Bell’s song’s lyrics caused a serious disruption at school.
Bell and his mother, Dora, of Fulton, sued the county school district and officials at Itawamba Agricultural High School in 2011.
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.
In court documents, Bell’s attorneys said while some of the lyrics in the rap song are “vulgar and offensive, they do not threaten that Taylor would kill the coaches or encouraging anyone else to kill them.”
“At worst, if the lyrics are taken lyrically, Taylor is suggesting that other people, like parents, might retaliate against the coaches because of their behavior toward female students and requesting listeners to express their dislike of the coaches’ behavior,” Bell’s attorneys said.
Bell’s attorneys contend the school district exaggerated what was in the lyrics and did not have the constitutional authority to discipline any student for what is said or done outside of school.
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 IAHS and included the names of coaches and some students and posted the school’s logo with the song. The coaches had to change how they taught and coached students because of the song, which was just one example of how the school environment was disrupted, officials said.
“Student speech which can reasonably be perceived as a threat of school violence can and should be regulated by schools,” the school system said in court papers.
“Bell ‘brought’ the speech to campus by naming the coaches, the school, and specific students in the song. … He admits that he knew once he put it on Facebook and YouTube that it was open to the public. He admittedly knew students were going to hear it.”