Musical tastes at the Supreme Court run toward opera. On Monday, a glittering array of hip-hop stars will try to expand the justices’ musical horizons.
In a brief supporting a Mississippi high school student who was disciplined for posting a rap song online, artists including T. I., Big Boi and Killer Mike will explain to the justices that rap music is a political and artistic juggernaut that deserves attention and First Amendment protection.
“The government punished a young man for his art — and, more disturbing, for the musical genre by which he chose to express himself,” their brief says.
The rappers urged the justices to hear an appeal from Taylor Bell, who was a high school senior when he was suspended and sent to a different school for posting a song on Facebook and YouTube that drew attention to complaints of sexual misconduct by two coaches.
“Following a long line of rappers before him,” the brief said, “Bell saw an opportunity to confront injustice.”
T. I.’s hits include collaborations with Justin Timberlake and Rihanna. Big Boi is a member of the hip-hop duo Outkast. Killer Mike is a performer and political activist whose collaboration with the rapper El-P, “Run the Jewels 2,” was on many 10-best lists last year.
Despite their prominence, their brief seemed to assume that the justices know little about hip-hop. Of Killer Mike it said, “It probably is worth noting that he has never actually killed anyone.”
It is indeed a good bet that most of the justices have other musical preferences. “My colleagues are all enamored of opera,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor said at the University of Tulsa last year.
In an interview, Killer Mike took a dim view of the Supreme Court, saying it had gutted the Voting Rights Act. But he held out hope that the justices would treat the violent images in Mr. Bell’s song no differently than they would similar ones in folk, country, reggae — or opera.
“Anyone who is learned in law,” Killer Mike said, “is capable of separating art and lyrics, whether you agree with them or not, and actual human behavior. I think the courts understand it when it’s Johnny Cash. I think they understand it when it’s Robert Nesta Marley.”
It is true that Johnny Cash did not actually shoot a man in Reno just to watch him die. Bob Marley did not actually shoot the sheriff. Treating rap lyrics differently, Killer Mike said, “persecutes poor young men based on their class and color.”
Mr. Bell, who raps as T-Bizzle, is now 22 and still pursuing a career in music. He sounded stunned on hearing the names of the stars who have come to his aid.
“It makes me feel like a kid in a candy store,” he said.
The case started in 2011, when Mr. Bell was a senior at Itawamba Agricultural High School in Fulton, Miss. (The school has been in the news before. In 2010, it canceled a prom rather than let a lesbian student attend with her girlfriend.)
After several female students said they had been subjected to sexually charged comments and unwanted touching from two male coaches, Mr. Bell recorded a song to address the complaints.
He did so away from school, at a professional studio, over the school’s winter vacation. The song is angry, catchy and full of profanity and violent images.
“Looking down girls’ shirts, drool running down your mouth,” Mr. Bell sings of the coaches. “Going to get a pistol down your mouth.”
School officials disciplined Mr. Bell, saying he was guilty of harassment, intimidation and, as they put it in an appellate brief, “threatening two named educators with gun-related violence.”
Mr. Bell said the officials had badly misunderstood his point.
“The song does carry a lot of strong, vulgar language,” Mr. Bell said. “If you don’t really listen to hip-hop music, sometimes that language can kind of blur the message of what you’re trying to get across.”
What was the message?
“These coaches are basically assaulting the children, even if it’s verbally,” Mr. Bell said.
Mr. Bell and his mother sued, seeking to have his school record expunged. “It’s not about the money,” Mr. Bell said. “We just sued for one dollar.”
A divided 16-member panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in New Orleans, rejected Mr. Bell’s First Amendment challenge.
Judge Rhesa Hawkins Barksdale, writing for the majority, said the song was “incredibly profane and vulgar” and contained “numerous spelling and grammatical errors.”
“If there is to be education,” Judge Barksdale wrote, “such conduct cannot be permitted.”
A dissenting judge, James L. Dennis, said the issues addressed by Mr. Bell were exactly the sort of thing that the First Amendment was designed to protect.
“It bears mentioning,” Judge Dennis added, “that the school board has never attempted to argue that Bell’s song stated any fact falsely.” Indeed, he wrote, “four different female students submitted sworn affidavits detailing the sexual harassment they endured at the hands of the coaches.”
The artists who signed the brief also included Pharoahe Monch, Boots Riley, Toni Blackman, Jasiri X and Favianna Rodriguez. They were joined by many scholars who study rap, including Erik Nielson, a professor at the University of Richmond.
“Rap doesn’t make it to the Supreme Court very often,” Mr. Nielson said.
The court will probably decide in February whether to hear the case, Bell v. Itawamba County School Board, No. 15-666. The odds, as always, are long. But the case presents an important First Amendment question that several appellate court judges have urged the Supreme Court to decide: When may students be punished for things they say outside school?
The Supreme Court has been cutting back on students’ free speech rights, but the leading precedent still seems to limit school officials’ power to censor speech to things said at school. That 1969 ruling, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, allowed students to wear black armbands to protest the Vietnam War but said disruptive speech at school could be punished.
Drawing distinctions between what students say on campus and off was easier in 1969, before the rise of social media. The appeals court in Mr. Bell’s case said the new digital world requires new rules, one in which school officials may police and punish what students say wherever they say it.
Killer Mike said the First Amendment allows no such thing. “I see a kid who saw wrong happening and was outraged about it,” he said. “He wrote a poem about it over a beat.”