The Supreme Court on Wednesday extended free speech protection to a high school cheerleader who was disciplined for social media posts critical of her school, ruling the 1st Amendment protected her off-campus remarks.
In a 8-1 decision, the justices ruled for Brandi Levy, a Pennsylvania girl who was suspended from the cheerleading team because she posted several profane comments on Snapchat.
The court in an opinion by Justice Stephen G. Breyer said her post may have offended school officials, but it did not otherwise disrupt the school. And he said courts should be skeptical of efforts to discipline students for what they say or post on their own free time.
“It might be tempting to dismiss B. L.’s words as unworthy of the robust 1st Amendment protections discussed herein. But sometimes it is necessary to protect the superfluous in order to preserve the necessary,” he wrote in Mahanoy School District vs. B.L.
Only Justice Clarence Thomas dissented and said he does not believe students and children have such protected rights.
ACLU lawyers who represented Levy welcomed the outcome.
“Protecting young people’s free speech rights when they are outside of school is vital, and this is a huge victory for the free speech rights of millions of students who attend our nation’s public schools,” said David Cole, legal director of the ACLU.
The case began when Levy, a high school sophomore in a small Pennsylvania town, learned she had been passed over for the varsity cheerleading team.
On a Saturday afternoon, she took a photo of herself and a friend with their middle fingers raised and posted it on Snapchat. She included a caption repeating the F-word for “school … softball … cheer … everything.”
The post could be seen by 250 of her friends, including other cheerleaders, and they in turn showed it the two cheerleading coaches for Mahanoy High School.
They decided she had violated team rules that required showing “respect” to others and avoiding “foul language,” and they suspended her for the year from the junior varsity squad.
She and her parents appealed the decision to school officials and the school board. And when that failed, they sued in federal court, alleging a violation of her 1st Amendment right to the freedom of speech.
Her case posed a question that has divided courts in recent decades. Are students entirely free to say what they wish on social media — even if it includes vulgar, harassing or racist comments — or can they be disciplined by school officials?
During the Vietnam War, the Supreme Court ruled in 1969 that students retained their free speech rights when they went to school, so long as their protests did not cause “substantial disruptions” there. But that ruling has provided little guidance for how to view a student’s posts on social media.
A federal judge ruled for Levy, who said her Saturday afternoon posting did not disrupt her school. The U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia agreed and ruled the school’s authority did not extend to off-campus speech.
But the Supreme Court agreed to hear the school district’s appeal in Mahanoy School District vs. B.L. to try to clarify the line between the rights of a student and the authority of school officials.
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