(CNN)If your child attended a school where male athletic coaches were accused of sexually harassing female students, would you want school administrators to investigate the allegations or punish the young man who made them public?
In an important case now before the U.S. Supreme Court — Bell v. Itawamba County School Board — a Mississippi high school decided to punish the young man for expressing his concerns in a rap song, in the process raising serious questions about students’ First Amendment protections as well as broader questions about the role of race in determining when those protections apply.
The administrators at Itawamba Agricultural High School just didn’t like it. Although they maintain that the song was “disruptive and threatening,” none of them acted as though the song were a real threat; even the Fifth Circuit denied that it rose to the level a “true threat” (a category of speech not protected by the First Amendment).
Instead, what’s clear is that people were offended by Bell’s brazen attempt to stand up for his fellow students. During Bell’s hearing before the school’s Disciplinary Committee, one committee member made the school’s motivations clear, telling Bell, “Censor that stuff. Don’t put all those bad words in it. … The bad words ain’t making it better.”
This isn’t the first time officials at Itawamba Agricultural High School have tried to silence and marginalize students they find offensive.
In 2010, the school made headlines for canceling a prom rather than allowing two lesbian students to attend as a couple. One of the young women, Constance McMillen, took the school to court to defend her First Amendment rights, and she won.
Now it’s Taylor Bell’s turn.
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