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Monday, January 5, 2015

Court Overturns Student's Suspension for Social Media Rap Song

An aspiring student rapper posted on Facebook and YouTube a rap song with lyrics that criticized two athletic coaches for sexually harassing female students at his high school.  The song was recorded at a professional studio unaffiliated with the school, and posted to his personal social media sites from his personal computer.  After the school suspended the student, he sued the school claiming that the suspension violated his First Amendment rights.  The trial district court ruled in favor of the school board, but the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently reversed, and awarded damages to the student.  Bell v. Itawamba County School Board (5th Cir. 2014)

The Fifth Circuit first determined that the song was composed and recorded off-campus, on his own computer, and posted to personal social media sites.  Second, the Court rejected the school district's argument that the song caused "substantial disruption" of school work or discipline. The Court questioned whether that defense to a First Amendment claim would even apply to a student's off-campus speech, although the Court ultimately did not rule on that issue. Instead, the Court held that even if the "substantial disruption" test does apply to off-campus conduct, the school district failed to show that the song created any "commotion, boisterous conduct, interruption of classes, or any lack of order, discipline and decorum at the school."  

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