The Supreme Court ruled today that a high school in Pennsylvania violated a student’s First Amendment rights by suspending her from the cheerleading team, following Snapchat posts where she criticized the school with expletives. The judgement sets a stronger standard for how schools can punish students for off-campus speech, something that’s all the more common these days with social networks like Snapchat. The Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling, which also found that the school, Mahoney Area High School, violated Brandi Levy’s First Amendment rights.
After failing to make the school’s varsity cheerleading team in 2017, Levy posted two Snapchat messages with a friend while hanging out at a local store. “F— school f— softball f— cheer f— everything,” she wrote in her first message, according to CNBC. She captioned her follow-up message with “Love how me and [another student] get told we need a year of jv before we make varsity but tha[t] doesn’t matter to anyone else?” And of course, it was accompanied by an upside down smiley face emoji.
“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 [Brandi Levy’s] interest in free expression in this case,” Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in the ruling. While the Court says schools have some ability to regulate a student’s off-campus speech, including situations like teacher harassment and severe bullying.
But when it comes to this case, Breyer wrote the school didn’t overcome three measures for regulating off-campus speech. First, schools rarely take the place of parents when students are away from campus. Additionally, courts need to be extra skeptical of when schools try to regulate off-campus speech, because it essentially allows them to find issues with anything a student says throughout the day. Finally, Breyer wrote that public schools also have an interest in protecting Free Speech, because they serve as “nurseries of Democracy.”
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