By Kirstin Vinal; Staff Member (Vol. 15)
Where does a student’s speech stop being under control of their school? Could it be when they are 500 feet away from school property? Or when they are home? In 2015, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Bell v. Itawamba County School Board that speech outside of school grounds and in a student’s home is still subject to school regulation.Under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution: “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech . . .” The Supreme Court has held that while student’s do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” there are some exceptions to this rule—including threatening language. The issue discussed here is when speech is off campus, are individuals seen as private citizens (therefore awarded broader free speech rights) or are they still students (and therefore under the school’s control).
According to the Court in Bell, they are still considered students, therefore their language could be monitored. This creates a very broad landscape in which schools can monitor speech, thus infringing on student’s free speech rights.
Facts of the Case: It All Started with a Rap
When Taylor Bell heard rumors that a coach at his school was involved in inappropriate relationship with fellow students at his high school, Mr. Bell reacted in a creative way (like many artists before him)—through music. He recorded a rap he wrote about the situation, and posted it to Facebook and YouTube. Mr. Bell recorded the rap “[a]way from school or a school function and without using school resources,” thus making his speech “off-campus speech.”
When the rap was brought to the attention of Itawamba School officials, Mr. Bell was removed from class and suspended “pending a disciplinary-committee hearing.” The school considered Mr. Bell’s rap to be threatening language against the coaches he referenced in the work. After the hearing, Mr. Bell was informed that not only that his week-long suspension be upheld, but also “that he be placed in the county’s alternative school for the remainder of the nine-week grading period (approximately six weeks).” This suspension was appealed, subsequently upheld, and resulted in the filing of an action in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Court’s Ruling: Casting the School Control Net Farther
Mr. Bell wrote this rap with the intention of reaching his classmates. He wanted to expose the situation between the coach and students, while also showing his disgust at the situation. The school found his rap to contain “at least four instances of threatening, harassing, and intimidating language against the two coaches.” Bell contested that the school could not monitor this speech because it was not written or recorded on school property—it was off-campus speech.
In an effort to balance the free speech rights of students and the authority of school officials, the Court in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District ruled that student’s constitutional right to free speech may be infringed upon in light of “facts which might reasonably have led school authorities to forecast substantial disruption of or material interference with school activities.” Tinker cautioned that student’s do not automatically forfeit their First Amendment rights to free speech just by their status as students. Rather, if their speech affected the classroom activities or school environment, then it may be limited as that is a “substantial disruption” to school activities.
Applying the Tinker test, the Fifth Circuit ruled that the school’s monitoring of Mr. Bell’s rap was not a violation of his constitutional rights. Mr. Bell’s intention for students to see his message and knowledge that it would be spread around the school, combined with the perceived threatening undertones (whether they were true threats or not had no bearing on the ruling), was found to be a substantial disruption to the school.
The Fifth Circuit extended the ruling in Tinker outside of the classroom, into the student’s home. Student language that was once thought to be private, was now able to be monitored and infringed when school officials claim a “substantial disruption.”
Conclusion: The Teacher Followed Me Home
In a world fueled by social media, student speech can reach a wide audience faster than ever before. In an effort to control that speech and protect their employees, schools need to be able to cast a wide net of control. Bell allows student speech to be monitored, even when off campus, by using the “substantial disruption” standard from Tinker. This allows school officials to protect their employees and the school environment. At the same time, students need to be aware that regulation of their speech does not end when they leave the classroom—they can be held accountable for their words outside that space as well.
Students can be easily monitored on social media platforms and need to be careful even in their creative speech. Words they thought were private expressions of their feelings, can easily be shared throughout the student body and school hallways. Words they used to show their view on a situation can be arbitrarily deemed a “substantial disruption” to school activities and land them in hot water. This decision can lead the school to taking official action against them, without fear of infringing on their First Amendment right to free speech. The lack of strong definition for what is a “substantial disruption” opens the door to student’s being held accountable for almost anything.
School officials’ control of a student’s language no longer ends when the bell rings—the teacher can follow you home.