Federal Court Orders Pennsylvania School District to Reinstate Student Rapper

August 24, 2005 12:00 am

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PITTSBURGH – In a victory for free speech rights, a federal judge today ruled that ninth-grader Anthony Latour can return to school after he was expelled because of rap lyrics he wrote at home and posted on the Internet. The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania on behalf of Latour and his parents charging that school officials violated the student’s First Amendment rights.

“”The court reaffirmed the basic constitutional principle that words by themselves, even if violent, rarely can justify censorship,”” said Kim Watterson, a cooperating ACLU lawyer from the Pittsburgh law firm Reed Smith, who is handling the case. “”Anthony’s rap music — by which he flexes his lyrical muscles — is not a true threat, but is art enjoying full First Amendment protection.””

In late April of this year, 14-year-old Latour was arrested for several songs he composed over the past three years under the charge that the lyrics are “terroristic threats” because they describe acts of violence. Although the juvenile court charges are still pending, the Riverside Beaver school district expelled him for the rest of that school year and the next. The music objected to by school officials includes a two-year-old song responding to a classmate who had taunted him, a song written last fall describing a school shooting, and a rap challenge to another student who agreed to the verbal and musical “”joust.””

Based on evidence presented at an August 18 hearing, the court concluded that Latour’s songs, while violent, did not amount to “true threats” and were, therefore, protected by the First Amendment. The court found that the school district’s argument that it believed Latour to be a threat was weakened by the fact that they took no steps to investigate, such as searching his locker, nor did they talk to his parents or refer Latour to a counselor. The court also ruled that the school failed to present any evidence that Latour’s songs caused a disruption in the school day, which a school must show to justify punishing a student for speech.

U.S. District Chief Judge Donetta Ambrose issued the preliminary ruling this morning. The case continues for a final ruling to determine whether the school district’s disciplinary rules are unconstitutional, as the ACLU contends, because they punish students for constitutionally protected speech. The ACLU is also asking the court to award Latour damages.

The case is Latour v. Riverside Beaver School District and was filed in U. S. District Court in Pittsburgh. Lawyers for the Latours are Waterson and Vic Walczak, ACLU of Pennsylvania Legal Director.

Today’s order is online at: http://www.aclupa.org/downloads/LatourPIOrder.pdf.

For a copy of the original complaint and sample song lyrics, go to: /node/11838.

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