The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled a Schuylkill County school district violated a student’s First Amendment rights when it punished her for an expletive-laden social media rant.
The court ruled 8-1 in favor of 16-year-old Brandi Levi, who argued the Mahanoy Area School District’s decision to suspend her from the cheerleading squad was an overreach of its authority because she posted the Snapchat message off-campus and on a Saturday afternoon using her personal smartphone.
GOPUSA Editor: In dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that he would have upheld Levy’s suspension.
Frustrated at not making the varsity cheerleading squad or getting the softball position she wanted and worried about final exams, the Schuylkill County teen posted a picture of herself and a friend with middle fingers extended and the text, “F— school f— softball f— cheer f— everything.”
Although Snapchat messages are automatically deleted after 24 hours, one of her followers took a screen shot of the post. Mahanoy Area School District suspended Levy from cheerleading after a coach saw her post.
The case has been closely watched because it is only the fifth case on student speech the Supreme Court has heard in the last 52 years. It has the potential to recast the court’s foundational decision that while students do not shed their right to free speech at the schoolhouse gate, educators have limited authority to restrict what they say inside the school wall.
Mahanoy Area School District argued that schools have always had the ability to discipline students for off-campus speech to prevent on-campus disruption. While the 1969 Tinker decision limits censorship of student speech to that which causes disruptions in the classroom, it places no limit on where the offending speech takes place.
The district also argued that the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and the U.S. Virgin Islands, is the only federal appeals court to rule that the Tinker decision doesn’t apply outside of a school setting.
The district reasoned that fear of censorship doesn’t warrant a hard limit on schools’ ability to discipline students for things they say or write outside school. Other legal principles such as due process of law and fair notice that certain expression is prohibited guard against invasion of students’ privacy at home. Further, the Tinker decision bars schools from disciplining students because of disagreement with what they say.
The district also argued that preventing schools from policing off-campus expression would throw into chaos laws across the country requiring educators to address harassment, bullying or discrimination that infringes on other students’ rights or prevents them from accessing educational resources.
In the Tinker case, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of five students, including siblings Mary Beth and John Tinker, suspended by the Des Moines school district for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. The court found the First Amendment applies to public schools and that school officials may censor students only when their expression is disruptive to the educational process.
The Supreme Court has since found school officials can also limit student speech that is lewd or vulgar, that is inconsistent with a school’s educational mission and, most recently, that contains a message promoting illegal drug use when it upheld an Alaska high school student’s suspension for displaying a banner that read “Bong Hits 4 Jesus.”
Morning Call reporter Peter Hall
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