We spent time discussing the case of Taylor Bell, a high school student in Mississippi who was disciplined for rap lyrics. I am not sure how many people knew about the case but recently the Supreme Court declined to hear it. I wrote a piece of this case that I want to share (showing my class that I also did the assignment I asked them to do). But they did a great job with their editorials.
Taylor Bell, Hip Hop, and Ethics
It was quite common for college presidents in the 18th and 19th centuries to teach a course, usually on ethics. As a 21st century president, I like teaching ethics too, but to make the course relevant today, my class is called “Hip Hop, Sex, Gender, and Ethical Behavior.”
We just completed looking at hip hop and the law, and this year had a chance to follow the Taylor Bell case from Itawamba County, Mississippi. Recently, the Supreme Court denied the appeal to hear Bell’s case. As you may know, Bell was the high school student who made a rap song about alleged sexual harassment by coaches. The nature of the lyrics, which included profanity and allusions to violence, caused Bell to be suspended and spend several weeks in an alternative school.
One of our assignments was to look at some of hip hop’s biggest stars who have had legal issues, and argue the ethics of using their lyrics in court. After having a guest lecture from Dr. Erik Nielson who penned an amicus brief with several hip hop stars, we engaged in debate.
As I listened to my students and thought about the Bell case, I was even more convinced that using Bell’s lyrics to suspend him was wrong. First, there was never an argument made about Bell’s character. In legal cases where rap lyrics have been presented as evidence of character or past behavior, there was never a case made that Bell had discipline issues, arrests, or violent incidents. So the assertion by coaches that they “feared” for their safety seems baseless. Ice-T rapped about being a “Cop Killer,” but never arrested for threatening the police, and in fact, has played a detective for over a decade.
Bell’s art was inspired by life; his life never imitated his art.
Second, the character of the school board is questionable. This is the same school district in 2010 that attempted to cancel a prom to prevent lesbian student from bringing her girlfriend. They were sued, and lost. My guess is that the shenanigans surrounding this event, including the staging of a “fake prom” for the student in question to attend, one that also happened to host the 2 disabled students, shows a penchant for discrimination. It would have been great had someone filed ADA charges as well for excluding disabled students.
The final point is that this case shows how the school board marginalizes female students. The news these days is full of stories of teachers having inappropriate and sometimes illegal sexual engagement with students. In fact, in 2009 an Itawamba high school coach was arrested (and fired) for sending sexually explicit material to a student via text. The board never denied or in fact expressed concern about the allegations. Their response was simply the lyrics were vulgar and threatening, and that Bell should have presented his concerns another way.
Higher education is scrutinized for Title IV violations, particularly the lack of investigation. The law does not require allegations to be presented in any particular form. Once the board was aware of the allegations, they had a duty to investigate. I have not been able to determine if this was done. I would encourage interested persons to file a Freedom of Information Act request for their board minutes to determine if this was done, because if not, they have violated the law, something that Bell never did. And given the fact they have had a documented Title IX violation from 2009, can the school board show they have implemented training for all employees to prevent allegations like these?
I understand the need for order in high school, and agree the song caused a disruption. But the disruption was not due to violent lyrics; it was a “here we go again” moment with coaches and female students. The question is would Bell have been disciplined if no violence or profanity were used in his song?
In the end, the real tragedy is that they missed a teachable moment. Administrators of the school district took the lazy way out- they wielded power to punish. Problem solved. And yet they could have engaged all students in discussions about what free speech is and is not, and what limits might apply and in what cases.
But most of the education is needed for the administrators. With some estimating that white are 70% of hip hop consumers, the actions of the school board show the consequences of a generation gap and lack of cultural competence. The irony is that hip hop is the best vehicle to educate both groups in the areas where they need more information.
This is what we do in my class, teach students how to be ethical, critical thinkers that can tackle issues like this and help provide greater meaning for all. Seems like the Itawamba County leaders need to enroll next fall.