Teen Rapper Ordered Readmitted to School

A federal judge has ordered a suburban Pittsburgh school district to re-admit a teenaged rapper expelled for writing violent rap lyrics.

ED GORDON, host:

A suburban Pittsburgh school district has been ordered to re-admit a teen-age student expelled for writing violent rap lyrics. A federal judge found that his songs were protected by the First Amendment. NPR's Allison Keyes explains.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Singer: Watch what you say about me. Imagine my sons, and the word of mouth is that I'm carrying guns. Gonna come after you. What the (censored) are you gonna do? Jab 'em with a pop and the slugs that will punish you.

ALLISON KEYES reporting:

Fourteen-year-old Anthony Latour freely admits that lyrics like these might freak some people out, but the soon-to-be ninth-grader says this song, and others he's written, performed and posted on the Internet, were part of a rap battle with a rival musician for the uninitiated. It's kind of what they used to call whooping or playing the dozens. Latour says it was all in fun.

ANTHONY LATOUR: I asked the kid if he wanted to battle and he said yes. So I thought everything was cool.

KEYES: But Riverside Beaver County school officials and some parents believed Latour's lyrics were threats to shoot up the school and harm the other student. The school learned of Latour's songs last spring and contacted police who charged him with making terroristic threats and harassment.

LATOUR: My principal told me I was going to jail and I thought he was joking. And then they came and cuffed me.

KEYES: Latour was expelled. The American Civil Liberties Union sued on the family's behalf, arguing that the songs were constitutionally protected. Earlier this week, a federal judge agreed and issued a temporary injunction ordering the district to admit Latour when school starts August 31st. Kim Watterson represents the family.

Ms. KIM WATTERSON (Attorney): You can't punish based upon words alone. Instead, you have to look at the speech in context, and there's a very, very specific rule set forth by the United States Supreme Court and that's whether the speaker means to communicate an expression of an intent to do serious bodily harm.

KEYES: The court ruled that Latour's songs didn't constitute true threats against the school nor was there evidence that the material disrupted school. Latour's father, John, is also a musician. He says he supports his son's music even though it isn't quite to his taste.

Mr. JOHN LATOUR (Father): If he's going to write about vanilla things such as the ice cream man, his friends and his peers and the industry is not going to pay attention to it.

KEYES: John Latour says the violent metaphors in Anthony's music are an important part of the rap music, comic books and video games that teens enjoy.

Mr. LATOUR: As a parent, I investigated it, I listened to Eminem, I watched "8 Mile," listened to some of the music he was doing, and it was no different than what Hollywood and corporate America is selling to our children to listen to.

KEYES: The elder Latour thinks school officials in this rural working class area 45 minutes north of Pittsburgh aren't familiar with this kind of music and the culture surrounding it and overreacted, but attorney Greg Fox, who represents the school district, said in a statement that their action was appropriate based on the concerns of several parents who were worried about their children's safety. Sometimes, he said, perhaps it is better to take the words too seriously than to dismiss them altogether. In this era of heightened school security, it's important for school officials to take appropriate action to maintain a safe environment, Fox said. The school district hasn't yet decided whether to appeal the decision. Kim Watterson, the family's lawyer, says if no appeal is filed, the case will move forward.

Ms. WATTERSON: Eventually, the court will need to enter a permanent injunction ruling on Anthony's speech and prohibiting the school district from punishing him based on his speech.

KEYES: She says the court must also rule on a request that the school policy used to discipline Anthony be declared constitutionally vague. Anthony Latour still faces an August 31st hearing in juvenile court on the criminal charges.

Allison Keyes, NPR News.

GORDON: This is NPR News.

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