In a recent case, the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit joined four other circuits in recognizing the right of school districts to discipline students for at least some off-campus, online speech if the speech reasonably leads school authorities to forecast a substantial disruption or material interference with school activities. The case is important because it recognizes that even where a student’s online speech may contain elements of social commentary, if the speech also is reasonably understood to be threatening, harassing, and intimidating in violation of school board policy, schools are within their rights to take disciplinary action.
In Bell v. Itawamba County School Board, the Fifth Circuit, which has jurisdiction over Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, addressed a rap song posted by a Mississippi high school senior, Taylor Bell, on his publicly accessible Facebook page and YouTube. The bulk of the song criticized two coaches at the school, who were named in the song, for allegedly engaging in improper sexual relations with female students. The song also included four references to violent acts that would be carried out against the coaches, however, presumably by Bell.
The court found that Bell threatened, harassed, and intimidated the coaches in violation of school policy by intentionally directing his rap recording at the school community. The speech was threatening, harassing, and intimidating, according to the court, despite Bell’s attempts to explain the comments as merely “foreshadowing something that might happen” by someone else or as merely “‘colorful language’ used to entice listeners and reflective of the norm among young rap artists.”
The court went on to find that because the song created a reasonable risk of a substantial disruption, discipline was justified. The speech pertained directly to events occurring at school, identified two teachers by name, and was reasonably interpreted as threatening to the teachers’ safety. Moreover, the potential consequences of the threats were serious, including potential serious injury or death to the threatened coaches. Especially in light of the numerous, recent examples of violence in schools, it was reasonable for the school to determine that there was a risk of disruption that justified discipline.
This case is another important victory for schools, which are tasked with protecting members of the school environment in a world where misconduct often occurs off-campus and online. The case is one in a growing trend of courts recognizing these realities in the current school environment.