The ‘Tinker-Bell’ Framework: The Fifth Circuit Places Facebook inside the Schoolhouse Gate in Bell v. Itawamba County School Board
Taylor Bell, a senior at Itawamba Agricultural High School in Mississippi, posted on his personal Facebook page a rap song he composed and recorded away from school. The main thrust of the lyrics depicted a pattern of sexual harassment of female students by two of the school’s coaches. Word of the song soon spread to the school’s administrators, and the Itawamba County School Board (Board) informed Bell that because the song allegedly contained threats to specific coaches at the school, he would be suspended pending a disciplinary hearing.
At the hearing, the disciplinary committee mostly ignored the song’s underlying allegations, instead focusing on whether some of the lyrics violated school policy by containing “threatening, harassing, and intimidating” language directed at students or teachers. Specifically, the committee expressed concern about one line of the song, which reads “you’ve f–ed with the wrong one / going to get a pistol down your mouth,” asserting that the lyrics were “threats to a teacher.” Bell denied that he was making threats, contending that the lyrics “reflect the possibility that a parent or relative of one of the female students might eventually react violently upon learning that the coaches were harassing their children.” Although the disciplinary committee found that the issue of whether or not the lyrics constituted threats was “vague,” the Board unanimously decided that Bell had violated school policy and decided to place him in alternative school for the remainder of the grading period.
Bell filed an action in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi, seeking to enjoin the suspension as a violation of his First Amendment rights. The district court granted the Board’s motion for summary judgment, and Bell appealed. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, sitting en banc, held that under United States Supreme Court and Fifth Circuit precedent, the school had the right to suspend Bell under the circumstances, affirming the district court’s grant of summary judgment. Bell v. Itawamba County School Board, 799 F.3d 379 (5th Cir. 2015) (en banc).