Don't Let Principals Censor the Internet

Public schools should not have the power to punish off-campus speech.


In a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit last August, Judge Rhesa Hawkins Barksdale argued that a rap song featuring allegations of sexual harassment against two high school coaches represented a threat to civilization itself. As Barksdale explained it, coaches are teachers, teachers are essential to education, and "without education, there can be little, if any, civilization."  

If Barksdale is right, public school officials in Itawamba County, Mississippi, were valiantly fighting a return of the Dark Ages when they suspended Taylor Bell, an 18-year-old senior, for posting his song online. A less generous view, one that Bell is asking the Supreme Court to consider, suggests they were doing something a bit less noble: punishing speech that offended them.

In December 2010, Bell heard from several friends at Itawamba Agricultural High School, where a coach had been arrested the previous year after he was caught sending a student sexually explicit text messages, that two other coaches had made suggestive remarks to them or touched them inappropriately. Outraged but convinced administrators would not take the charges seriously, Bell, an aspiring musician, decided to write about them.

The result, which Bell posted on Facebook and YouTube in January 2011, is either an "incredibly profane and vulgar rap recording" that was "reasonably understood by school officials to be threatening, harassing, and intimidating" (as Barksdale saw it) or "a darkly sardonic but impassioned protest of two teachers' alleged sexual misconduct" (as dissenting Judge James Dennis put it). Which view people favor probably will have a lot to do with their opinions about rap music, which surely should not be grounds for government censorship.

As explained in a brief that eight rap stars and 27 scholars recently filed on Bell's behalf, the "violent rhetoric in Bell's song"—e.g., "betta watch your back," "I'm going to hit you with my Ruger," and "going to get a pistol down your mouth"?"are commonplace in rap and reflect some of the genre's most basic conventions." Furthermore, despite Barksdale's invocation of "Columbine-like" violence, school officials plainly did not perceive the rap as an actual threat, since they never contacted police and let Bell, who had a nearly spotless disciplinary record, remain on campus unsupervised.

Nor did school officials question the veracity of the sexual harassment claims, to which four students later attested in sworn affidavits. They nevertheless decided Bell had violated a school policy against "harassment, intimidation, or threatening other students and/or teachers." He was suspended for a week and sent to an "alternative school" for six weeks.

The 5th Circuit decided Bell's punishment was justified based on "a reasonable forecast of a substantial disruption." Never mind that Bell produced and published the song off campus, on his own time, and with his own resources; that no one, except for one of the coaches, seems to have listened to it at the school; and that it did not in fact lead to any identifiable educational disruption.

The Supreme Court has said the First Amendment allows public schools to ban genuinely disruptive speech on campus or at school-sponsored events. But it has never said school officials have the general authority to censor the speech of citizens who happen to be students, which is the upshot of the 5th Circuit's decision.

In his dissent, Judge Dennis notes that "the majority opinion obliterates the historically significant distinction between the household and the schoolyard" by "expanding schools' censorial authority from the campus and the teacher's classroom to the home and the child's bedroom." He warns that the ruling "inevitably will encourage school officials to silence student speakers…solely because they disagree with the content and form of their speech."

Students will know that anything they say, no matter where, can be used against them by school administrators with the power to mess up their young lives. In a free society, that is not a lesson schools should be teaching.

© Copyright 2015 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

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  1. As Barksdale explained it, coaches are teachers, teachers are essential to education, and “without education, there can be little, if any, civilization.”

    Someone sure paid close attention to those “The More You Know” PSA’s.

    1. I don’t understand why so many people think that teachers are originators of science, technology or, in this case, civilization. Teachers merely repeat what they have themselves learned. They do not create civilization.

      1. They confuse education with those tasked with providing it

        1. strangely, it’s pretty much the same people who deluged facebook about robin williams dying. i guess being so overwhelmed with emotion makes it hard to distinguish the message from the messenger.

      2. That seems very astute to me! As much knowledge as I have, it was taught to me, most of the time. But, to a motivated student, books, and self examination, can result in a large amount of information being retained. In some situations, having a better education can be politically incorrect!? Being more knowledgeable can lose you positions (jobs), as well! God help you if you appear to be smarter than your colleagues! Jealousy is such a nasty emotion! This kid seems smarter than many of his teachers! I would dare say that this student learned a lot about political protest, on his own. He put it to good use, making his video! I do listen to rap, just not the hateful stuff. No music is bad! It is all art!

        Why does it seem, as it did to me fifty plus years ago, in many cases, that the educators were not much more than policemen. They wallow in their power, waiting for the next adrenaline release, involved with confronting a student! In this case, as well as my time in school, there are/were, likely, more teachers that support this young man’s rights to speak as he wishes, when he is not on school property, and on his own time! As has been well proven, with home schooling, it does not take a schoolhouse full of educators, to teach our children!
        It is good to see a student not bending over, cowering like a little scared sheep, worried that there might be repercussions! Good for him!

        1. If I were an 18 year old high school senior today, and the principal of my school showed a pattern of trying to punish off campus student speech, I would bait him aggressively to set him up for a massive lawsuit. By the time i finished with the authoritarian bag, I would have a paid fro house and paid for college. And also a few paid for Backpage whores.

          1. Sui,

            Yes, free free free. As long as you dont rap with “I’m going to kill you, here’s a description of how” rap, which can be loosely called on genre. It is not an essential component of rap, and if a given rap artist feels a need to use it, it doesn’t have to address any specific person or school job (indirectly identifying someone).

            So, no direct or so nearly direct that it might as well be direct threats of violence. This leaves wide open the use of violent lyrics with other subject hero’s and villains. It also allows accusations of rape or rape-like child abuse.

    2. And without government, there is no education. Seriously. There were no schools before the federal Department of Education.

    3. If that’s true, then those four students should not have been allowed to file affidavits aginst the coaches, who are necessary for civilization to exist

    4. It sounds more like Animal House.

  2. Judge Rhesa Hawkins Barksdale. As Bugs Bunny once said, “What a maroon! What an imbessel!”

    1. *searches Abe’s comment for a woodchipper reference*


  3. We are living in the century of skyrocketed informational progress that requires new specialists and professions. One of such fields is Big Data mining. However it’s basics are statistics and analysis but widened onto many dimensions and spheres.

    I guess that the biggest challenge in the informational age is not collecting providing or creating information but sorting and analysing it. And here we come to artificial intelligence or machine learning principals.

    Why for example searching for “writing term paper guide” I will find some articles and other would be hidden from me? We should grow new generation of data analysts and computer scientists with the brand new point of view.

  4. Barksdale got to go man!

  5. Only 9 comments so far? Is everyone losing their interest in “freedom of speech”? At any rate, let’s not be silly. Posting coarsely provocative trigger-speech under the shield of “rap lyrics” is no more permissible than engaging in inappropriately deadpan mockery under the pretext of “satire.” Take, for example, purported Gmail “confessions” in which a department chairman is depicted as justifying his alleged plagiarism on these grounds:

    “But this is just the politics of Dead Sea Scrolls studies. If I had given credit to this man, I would have been banned from conferences around the world.”

    Such “confessions” are either a course academic parody, or (far more likely) an act of criminal deceit, depending on one’s perspective. Given the illegality of engaging in that sort of “expression” when one isn’t even a student, it’s hard to see how disciplining (which, after all, is a way of educating) an actual student who posts similarly offensive trigger-speech could possibly violate the so-called “First Amendment.” See the documentation of America’s leading criminal “satire” case at:


    1. Posting coarsely provocative trigger-speech under the shield of “rap lyrics” is no more permissible than engaging in inappropriately deadpan mockery under the pretext of “satire.”

      I just checked the first amendment, and no such exceptions exist. You’re incorrect.

      If you’re offended/triggered/whatever, that is entirely on you; offense is taken, not given. What is “offensive”, “provacative”, or “triggering” is completely subjective. Your emotions are your own problem. Have some personal responsibility.

      Hopefully this nonsense wasn’t serious, but I can rarely tell.

  6. This will be a summary SCOTUS resolution as should be obvious.

  7. As a dad to four really smart kids this concerns me. My kids have been taught from an early age to express themselves honestly and openly, and they’ve been taught that part of being a good citizen is engaging the issues around them. Now at 11 my oldest isn’t likely to start writing profane rap lyrics anytime soon (especially considering she doesn’t really care for rap…rebellion?) but she is likely to use social media to document and discuss issues she feels are important. Living in Utah I can see this case being used by overreaching school administrators as justification for trying to control the speech my kids engage in outside of school. However, I won’t tolerate it and neither should any of you. Usually a simple discussion where you inform an administrator that you will be contacting an attorney, as well as using your social media connections to make the issue extremely public is enough to get them to back down. In the event they don’t, follow through on both the attorney and the social media.

  8. If they have somehow obtained that “right”, then the the fur will indeed fly.

    1. Rights are not “obtained”! They are granted by our creator (or whomever for the atheists!) The government is only restricted, from denying them, by the Bill of Rights and the Constitution!

  9. Forget our s****y schools. Is there anything judges can’t do?

  10. Forget our s****y schools. Is there anything judges can’t do?

  11. Sadly, after Morse v. Frederick the ruling is probably correct. Wrong and bad for America, but correct nonetheless.

    1. Correct in what sense? Not correcting according to the constitution, which is what actually matters. The fake versions of the constitution that the courts have created is of no relevance to the actual constitution.

      If there is bad, incorrect court precedent, then the truly correct decision would have been to ignore it.

  12. Meanwhile, Oberlin whines that its sushi rice and banh mi are not being prepared authentically.

  13. It was a verbal threat, even if he wanted them to dismiss it as artistic necessity.

    1. Verbal threats aren’t actually forbidden by the first amendment. Try reading it.

      1. in fact, forbidding verbal threats is forbidden

  14. Rap sucks.
    That is all.

  15. Google pay 97$ per hour my last pay check was $8500 working 1o hours a week online. My younger brother friend has been averaging 12k for months now and he works about 22 hours a week. I cant believe how easy it was once I tried it out.
    This is wha- I do…… ?????? http://www.buzznews99.com

  16. This school just can’t stay away from controversy. Remember the prom incident five years ago? The name Constance McMillen ring a bell?

  17. See Title IX, and Yik Yak, or whatever it’s called..

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