Civil Liberties

High School Rapper Disciplined Over Music Appeals to SCOTUS

Bell v. Itawamba County School Board asks the court to decide whether public schools may discipline students for off-campus speech.


Aspiring rapper Taylor Bell (a.k.a. T-Bizzle), probably never thought he'd be asking Supreme Court justices to take a look at his rap lyrics. But that is exactly what he is doing after a lower court in Mississippi threw out his case against a school board who suspended him for posting a rap song to the internet. From Damon Root:

In 2011 Bell, then a high school senior, was suspended for "harassment, intimidation, or threatening other students and/or teachers" after he posted a rap song to Facebook and YouTube. The song irked school officials because it discussed the sexual misconduct charges leveled against two coaches by some of Bell's classmates.

Some of the lyrics included lines like "Looking down girls' shirts, drool running down your mouth," and "Going to get a pistol down your mouth," but it remains to be seen what kind of real threat Bell posed to anyone.

College professors Charis Kubrin of University of California, Irvine and Erik Nielson of the University of Richmond say the situation is much more dire than high school drama. They said in an amicus brief this week that in attempting to censor Bell's rap song, the school and Mississippi court deligitimized rap music as well:

In attempting to censor Bell's artistic expression, the school, and later the Fifth Circuit, essentially took aim at rap music, a sophisticated form of poetry that has served as an important vehicle for social commentary and political protest, particularly among young men and women of color. By taking Bell's song lyrics literally rather than as forms of artistic expression, both the school and the Fifth Circuit essentially delegitimized rap as an art form that is entitled to full protection under the Constitution.

The brief became popular with articles in Rolling Stone, SPIN and The New York Times after big time rappers Killer Mike, T. I., and Big Boi signed on with their support. From The New York Times:

"Anyone who is learned in law," Killer Mike said, "is capable of separating art and lyrics, whether you agree with them or not, and actual human behavior. I think the courts understand it when it's Johnny Cash. I think they understand it when it's Robert Nesta Marley."

It wouldn't be the first time that rap music was misunderstood by authorities. Back in 1989, groundbreaking gangsta rappers N.W.A. faced a First Amendment fight with their song "Fuck the Police." For more, watch "Gov't Tried to Shut Down Rap in Straight Outta Compton, and They're Still Doing It."