Content Regulation / Censorship, Gender Expression, Indecency / Obscenity
The State v. Momar Sowe and Alieu Sarr
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In 2011, Taylor Bell, a high school student at Itawamba Agricultural High School in Itawamba County, Mississippi, created and posted a rap recording on his publicly accessible Facebook and YouTube accounts. The recording allegedly contained harassing, intimidating, and threatening statements against two high school teachers. The Itawamba County School Board later upheld Bell’s suspension and his transfer to an alternative school for the remainder of the grading period.
Subsequently, Bell brought an action in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi against the board and the school’s superintendent and principal, alleging that the disciplinary measures violated his First Amendment right to free speech. In March 2012, the court granted the board’s summary judgment, concluding that the recording amounted to intimidation, harassment and possible threats to the school employees and the disciplinary measures were reasonable as a matter of law.
On appeal, the U.S Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the grant of summary judgment for the school board primarily based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503 (1969), which extended academic disciplinary measures to off-campus speech that may reasonably lead school officials “to forecast substantial disruption of or material interference with school activities.” The Circuit Court found that the board “reasonably could have forecast a substantial disruption at Bell’s school, based on the threatening, intimidating, and harassing language in [his] rap recording.”
On January 05, 2011, Taylor Bell, a student at the Itawamba Agricultural High School in Mississippi, created and uploaded a rap recording on his publicly-accessed Facebook and YouTube accounts. In that recording, he accused two of his teachers having sexual misconduct with female students. Aside from being profane and vulgar, the recording contained instances of threatening, harassing, and intimidating language: “I’m going to hit you with my rueger (reference to a brand of firearm); “[I am] going to get a pistol down your mouth.” [p. 4]
On January 13, 2011, the school suspended Bell from attending further classes pending a disciplinary committee hearing. At the hearing, Bell explained that he did not report the alleged sexual misconduct to school officials, believing that it would be ignored. He admitted that instead he made and published the recording online because he knew that it would be viewed and heard by students. On January 27, 2011, the committee recommended to Itawamba County School Board to suspend Bell and transfer him to an alternative school within the county for the remainder of his grading period. On February 07, 2011, the board accepted the recommendation based on its finding that the recording “threatened, harassed and intimated school employees.” [p. 8]
On February 24, 2011, Bell filed an action in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi against the board and the school’s superintendent and principal, alleging that the disciplinary action violated his First Amendment right to free speech.
On March 15, 2012, the district court granted the board’s motion for summary judgment on the grounds that the recording amounted to “harassment and intimidation of teachers and possible threats against teachers,” causing “a material and/or substantial disruption at school.” [p. 12] The court concluded that the school acted reasonably as a matter of law in imposing the disciplinary action against Bell.
On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the board. It held that that the board violated Bell’s First Amendment right by the disciplinary action. On February 19, 2015, the Circuit Court granted an en banc review of the decision.
Judge Rhesa Hawkins Barksdale delivered the majority opinion of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.
The first issue before the Court was whether the school’s disciplinary action could constitutionally extent to Bell’s recording as an off-campus speech. In Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503, 513 (1969), the U.S. Supreme Court held that “conduct by the student, in class or out of it, which for any reason—whether it stems from time, place, or type of behavior—materially disrupts classwork or involves substantial [disruption] or invasion of the rights of others is, of course, not immunized by the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech.” Bell argued that such standard in Tinker did not apply to his out of school recording and that even if it does, Tinker‘s “substantial test” could not be met.
The Court determined that the Tinker test did apply to certain situations relating to off-campus speech in accordance with its jurisprudence, case law of other circuit courts, and technological developments that increasingly blur the boundaries between on-campus and off-campus speech. The Court acknowledged the direct tension between off-campus speech and school officials’ responsibility to protect the school community, but it also emphasized that the advent of communication technologies, such as digital social media continues to present evolving challenges to school administrators. According to the Court, its holding to extent restrictive measures to off-campus speech is based on “the paramount need for school officials to be able to react quickly and effectively to protect students and faculty from threats, intimidation, and harassment intentionally directed at the school community.” [p. 20]
The second issue was whether the content of Bell’s recording gave sufficient ground for restriction. In line with Tinker, the Court ruled that restriction of off-campus speech is permitted “when a student intentionally directs at the school community speech reasonably understood by school officials to threaten, harass, and intimidate a teacher, even when such speech originated and was disseminated, off-campus without the use of school resources.” [p. 25] As applied to the case, the Court found no material dispute over the fact that Bell intended his recording to reach the school community as he had admitted to the disciplinary board that his purpose was to “increase awareness of the [alleged misconduct].” [p. 26]
The final question for Court was whether Bell’s recording in fact satisfied the test developed by the U.S. Supreme Court in Tinker. Under Tinker, “a school board is permitted to discipline a student for speech that either causes a substantial disruption or reasonably is forecast to cause one.” [p. 28] Also, “[s]chool officials must be able to show that their actions were caused by something more than a mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint.” [p. 28] Applying to the case, the Court concluded that “Bell’s conduct reasonably could have been forecast to cause a substantial disruption.” [p. 31] Specifically, it noted that the recording pertained directly to events at school and precisely identified the two teachers by name, one of whom subjectively feared for his safety.
Based on the foregoing analysis, the Circuit Court affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment for the school board.
The dissent, delivered by Judge Dennis, primarily established that Bell’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech was violated. Judge Dennis determined that the majority judgment failed to acknowledge that the content of Bell’s speech was “on a matter of public concern” that should be protected by the First Amendment right to free speech. [p. 44]
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The decision contracts expression as it determined that off-campus expression made by a student can be restricted by school officials and does not infringe the right to freedom of speech as established by the First Amendment. The majority judgment established that the main reason for the restriction of such speech was that the speech in question contained threatening, intimidating, and harassing statements against two teachers that could reasonably lead to substantial disruption of the school environment.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
The decision establishes a precedential effect within the jurisdiction of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.
Let us know if you notice errors or if the case analysis needs revision.