Law School Case Brief
Bell v. Itawamba Cty. Sch. Bd. - 774 F.3d 280 (5th Cir. 2014)
The protections that the First Amendment, U.S. Const. amend. I, affords speech and expressive conduct are not absolute. The government may regulate certain unprotected categories of expression consistent with the Constitution. One such category of unprotected speech is that which constitutes a "true threat." "True threats" encompass those statements where the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals.
Taylor Bell, an 18-year-old senior at Itawamba Agricultural High School, wrote and posted on the internet a rap song criticizing, with vulgar and violent lyrics, two named male athletic coaches for sexually harassing female students at his school. Bell composed the song off campus, recorded it at a professional studio unaffiliated with the school, and posted it on his Facebook page and on YouTube using his personal computer while at home. Upon discovery of the rap song, the school board suspended and transferred Bell to an alternative school. Bell and his mother sued the school board, its superintendent, and the school's principal, for violation of Bell's freedom of speech under the First Amendment and Dora Bell's substantive-due-process right to parental authority under the Fourteenth Amendment. Upon cross-motions for summary judgment, the district court rendered summary judgment for the school board and its officials. The Bells appealed.
Taking into consideration the circumstances of the case, did the school board violate Bell’s constitutional rights when they suspended him on the basis of his off-campus actions?
The Court held that the school board violated Bell’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech. According to the Court, the rap song was protected speech under the First Amendment because Bell composed and recorded his song completely off campus, and used his home computer to post it on the internet during non-school hours. Furthermore, records established that the school board did not demonstrate that Bell’s song caused a substantial disruption. The Court ruled that the violent lyrics contained in Bell’s song were plainly rhetorical in nature, and could not reasonably have been viewed as a genuine threat to the coaches.
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