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Bell v. Itawamba Cty. Sch. Bd. - 799 F.3d 379 (5th Cir. 2015)

Rule:

Factors considered by courts in determining, pursuant to Tinker, the substantiality vel non of an actual disruption, and the objective reasonableness vel non of a forecasted substantial disruption, include: the nature and content of the speech, the objective and subjective seriousness of the speech, and the severity of the possible consequences should the speaker take action; the relationship of the speech to the school, the intent of the speaker to disseminate, or keep private, the speech, and the nature, and severity, of the school's response in disciplining the student; whether the speaker expressly identified an educator or student by name or reference, and past incidents arising out of similar speech; the manner in which the speech reached the school community; the intent of the school in disciplining the student; and the occurrence of other in-school disturbances, including administrative disturbances involving the speaker, such as school officials having to spend considerable time dealing with these concerns and ensuring that appropriate safety measures were in place brought about because of the need to manage concerns over the speech.

Facts:

Away from school or a school function and without using school resources (off-campus speech), Taylor Bell, a student at Itawamba Agricultural High School in Itawamba County, Mississippi, posted a rap recording containing threatening language against two high school teachers/coaches on the Internet (first on his publicly accessible Facebook profile page and then on YouTube), intending it to reach the school community. In the recording, Bell named the two teachers and described violent acts to be carried out against them. Interpreting the language as threatening, harassing, and intimidating the teachers, the Itawamba County School Board took disciplinary action against Bell. Bell claimed being disciplined violated his First Amendment right to free speech. On cross-motions for summary judgment, the district court ruled, inter alia: the school board, as well as the school-district superintendent, Teresa McNeece, and the school principal, Trae Wiygul, acting in their official capacities (the school board), acted reasonably as a matter of law.

Issue:

Did the disciplinary action taken by the Itawamba County School Board against Bell for a rap song, recorded off-campus, without the use of school resources, containing threatening language against two high school teachers/coaches, and posted on social networking sites violate Bell's First Amendment rights?

Answer:

No

Conclusion:

The Court held that the disciplinary action taken by the Itawamba County School Board against Bell for a rap song Bell recorded off-campus, without the use of school resources, and posted on social networking sites did not infringe upon Bell's First Amendment rights because the recording described violent acts to be carried out against two named coaches, Bell intended the recording to reach the school community, and, under Tinker, the school board reasonably could have forecasted a substantial disruption at school, based on the threatening, intimidating, and harassing language in the recording.

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