Freedom of speech gained a victory this week with the 8 to 1 United States Supreme Court ruling that a Pennsylvania public school district had violated the First Amendments rights of a high school student — who had indeed used expletives while she was off-campus — by punishing her.
The case involved a then-14-yearold cheerleader who, frustrated at not making the varsity cheer team, posted a strong of f-bombs on Snapchat in reference to school, cheerleading and “everything,” along with a photo of herself and a friend raising their middle fingers.
Given the nature of both the internet and teenagers, there are certainly countless similar instances occurring every single day around the world as students express themselves online with no meaningful impact to their own or others’ educational lives or the reputation of schools.
In the long run, these are the kinds of little dust-ups that will be remembered at 10th and 20th reunions with a laugh and some fond recollections of the capriciousness of youth.
But in this case, word got around to school officials, who decided her social media post, which happened off-campus, outside of school hours and didn’t specifically mention the school or individual people, merited punishment. The student was subsequently suspended from the cheer team for the upcoming year, prompting her parents to legally challenge the decision.
This week, the Supreme Court agreed that while there are circumstances in which schools can punish students, this was not one of them in a nation that respects free speech for all, including teens.
“Putting aside the vulgar language, the listener would hear criticism, of the team, the team’s coaches, and the school — in a word or two, criticism of the rules of a community of which [the student] forms a part,” wrote Justice Stephen Breyer for the majority. “It might be tempting to dismiss [the student’s] words as unworthy of the robust First Amendment protections discussed herein. But sometimes it is necessary to protect the superfluous in order to preserve the necessary.”
Indeed, while the student’s word choice may have been vulgar or offensive, fundamentally it’s a case of a student expressing herself about matters she’s involved in.
There was no call for violence, there was no harm done to the school, and the student’s speech certainly didn’t “substantially disrupt” the learning environment. The latter standard emerged in the 1969 case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School, which protected the rights of students who wore an anti-war armband. While the speech in this case of a minor student may or may not merit a parental discussion, such speech doesn’t justify government intervention, especially when the speech didn’t even occur in school.
With their decision, the court set a reasonable defense of free speech for students and an important limit on the reach of public school officials.
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