Court of Appeals: School Board Violated Student’s First Amendment Rights by Punishing Off-Campus Speech

It’s an enigma wrapped inside a riddle anymore – what to do with off-campus student speech that clearly has an impact on the school environment? Courts continue to grapple with these issues and new decisions are published from around the country almost weekly. While the quantity of jurisprudence on this topic continues to increase, clarity continues to be at a premium.

The latest decision on this topic comes from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. In a lengthy decision issued December 12, 2014, the Court held that a school board violated a student’s First Amendment right of free speech by punishing him for his speech made off-campus. Bell v. Itawamba Cnty. Sch. Bd., No. 12-60264 (5th Cir. 2014).

The case involved student Taylor Bell, who composed a rap song at home, recorded it at a professional studio with no affiliation to the school, and posted it online to Facebook and You Tube from his personal computer. The song criticized two male athletic coaches at the school for sexually harassing female students and contained violent and vulgar lyrics. The student was an 18-year-old senior at the time, and his female friends from school told him about inappropriate contacts with the coaches. Bell claimed that he did not report the incidents to school authorities because previous similar complaints had been ignored. He claimed the song was his artistic expression to bring awareness to the problem, as well as to attract fans and a potential record label. It was not brought to the school’s attention until the wife of one of the coaches told her husband, who notified the principal and superintendent. Bell was sent home from school that day and upon returning to school, he was removed from class and suspended. READ MORE HERE.

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