Supreme Court rulings in Cheerleader’s Snapchat freedom of speech case

The cheerleader is holding pink pom poms

Photo: Lynne sladky (PA)

The United States Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a high school in Pennsylvania violated the First Amendment rights of a former cheerleader by punishing her for saying “fuck school” on Snapchat. The decision potentially limits the ability of schools to regulate the discourse of off-campus students.

In an 8-1 ruling upholding a lower court’s ruling, the Supreme Court ruled that the Mahanoy-area high school had exceeded its powers to control student speech when coaches suspended 14-year-old Brandi Levy. years, of the school cheerleading team for a year. on two Snapchat messages she posted in 2017 from her own phone, outside of school and in her spare time.

“BL messages are entitled to First Amendment protection,” Judge Stephen Breyer wrote in the opinion of the Court. “The statements made in BL’s Snapchats reflect criticism of the rules of a community of which BL is a part. And BL’s message did not involve any features that would place it outside the ordinary protection of the First Amendment.

“Fuck school fuck cheer fuck softball fuck everything,” Levy wrote in a photo of herself and a friend giving the middle finger after failing to make the college cheerleader squad, according to ACLU. The snap was posted on a Saturday and disappeared 24 hours later – before the start of the school week – but it eventually circulated around the school and made its way to the coaches of the cheerleader team.

Schools have a strong legal precedent in the 1969 Tinker v. Monks decision to restrict student speech in cases of bullying or harassment, threats or other speech that has a significant impact on the learning environment. It is because of these broad powers to limit the freedom of expression of students that the Court has found it necessary in this case to set the bar high for cases where these powers can be used. In addition, the court found that the school had simply overreacted.

“The school’s interest in avoiding disruption is not supported by the record, which shows that the discussion of the issue took at most 5 to 10 minutes of an algebra class” for a few days “and that some members of the cheerleading squad were “upset” by the content of BL’s Snapchats, “read Wednesday’s decision. “That alone does not meet Tinker’s exacting standards. Likewise, there is no suggestion of substantial interference or disruption of the school’s efforts to maintain the cohesion of the school’s cheerleading team.

Justice Clarence Thomas, in his lone dissent, says the court ignored a long history of schools disciplining students for “disrespectful language” – on and off school property – citing an 1859 case in which a student was punished for apparently disparaging a teacher as “old.” He writes of the decision, then handed down by the Vermont Supreme Court: “A school can regulate speech when it occurs off campus, as long as it has an immediate tendency to harm the school, its people. professors or its students, or its programs.

“If there is a good constitutional reason to deviate from this historic rule”, writes Thomas, “the majority and the parties fail to identify it”.

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