Supreme Court Rules For Cheerleader In Free Speech Case

Laverne Higgins
June 23, 2021

Can a student be disciplined for f-bombs delivered on social media from off campus?

The Supreme Court on Wednesday sided with a former high-school cheerleader who was punished after posting a profane rant on Snapchat, ruling that a Pennsylvania school district violated the First Amendment by suspending her from the team.

The case involved a high school cheerleader who did not make the varsity squad at her school in the Mahanoy Area School District in eastern Pennsylvania.

On a Saturday when she wasn't present at school, she visited Snapchat, where messages automatically disappear after 24 hours.

Ms. Levy said she was happy the justices recognized her school went too far.

When school officials learned of the outburst, Levy was suspended from the JV team for having violated school rules. In response to the message, the school suspended Levy from the team for a year.

The school district took the case to the Supreme Court, arguing that the post caused a disturbance at school and officials must be able to address speech that causes a substantial disruption.

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But the court rejected a sweeping lower court standard - loudly criticized by educators, administrators, and some parents - that categorically banned schools from any ability to police student speech outside the schoolhouse gate. Morse v. Frederick, in 2007, ruled that a principal did have the right to discipline a student who wore a t-shirt reading "Bong Hits 4 Jesus". The district argued it needed authority over that speech in order to prevent cyberbullying.

The Supreme Court danced around the issue of schools punishing children for outside of Campus activity, especially online.

Justice Stephen Breyer, writing the majority opinion, ultimately concluded, "While public schools may have a special interest in regulating some off-campus student speech, the special interests offered by the school are not sufficient to overcome B. L.'s interest in free expression in this case". She also tried out for right fielder on a private softball team but did not receive that position.

"It might be tempting to dismiss B". L.'s words as unworthy of the robust First Amendment protections discussed herein. Finally, Breyer wrote that public schools also have an interest in protecting Free Speech, because they serve as "nurseries of Democracy". The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit affirmed the decision. The board noted that 47 states have laws requiring schools to enforce anti-bullying policies already on the books.

"The school, in this case, asked the court to allow it to punish speech that it considered 'disruptive, ' regardless of where it occurs". That court held that the punishment ran afoul of the First Amendment and awarded Levy nominal damages and attorneys' fees and ordered the school to expunge her disciplinary record.

Yet the high court acknowledged that schools may have an interest in regulating some off-campus speech when there is a threat of bullying or harassment. The American Civil Liberties Union, representing Levy and her parents in the lawsuit against Mahanoy Area School District, had argued that students need protection from censorship and monitoring of their beliefs.

Due to an increase in computer-based learning, the justices said they will not detail a list of what counts as "off-campus" speech protected by the First Amendment.

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