The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled in favor of a Pennsylvania teenager who sued after a profane social media post got her banished from her high school’s cheerleading squad in a narrow decision in a closely watched free speech case.
The justices, in an 8-1 ruling authored by liberal Justice Stephen Breyer, decided that the punishment that Mahanoy Area School District officials doled out to the plaintiff, Brandi Levy, for her social media post made at a local convenience store in Mahanoy City on a weekend, violated her free speech rights.
But, in a win for educators, the justices also preserved public schools’ power to sometimes regulate speech that occurs off campus, declining to endorse a lower court decision that found that the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment guarantee of free speech prohibited extending officials’ authority outside the school.
Justice Breyer made clear, however, that schools’ power to punish off-campus speech is less than on campus.
“When it comes to political or religious speech that occurs outside school or a school program or activity, the school will have a heavy burden to justify intervention,” Justice Breyer wrote in the ruling.
But the justices do not believe, Justice Breyer said, that the “special characteristics that give schools additional license to regulate student speech always disappear when a school regulates speech that takes place off campus. The school’s regulatory interests remain significant in some off-campus circumstances.”
The ruling left the door open to future cases to help better define the scope of that power.
In a dissent, conservative Justice Clarence Thomas said that schools “historically could discipline students in circumstances like those presented here.” Lower courts will also be “at a loss” in trying to apply the ruling, Justice Thomas added.
The case involved the free speech rights of America’s roughly 50 million public school students. Many schools and educators have argued that their ability to curb bullying, threats, cheating, and harassment – all frequently occurring online – should not be limited to school grounds.
The court pondered the competing issues of students having freedom of expression, especially political or religious views, and schools having the ability to prevent disruptions in the internet and social media era.
The American Civil Liberties Union, representing Ms. Levy and her parents in the lawsuit against Mahanoy Area School District, had argued that students need protection from censorship and monitoring of their beliefs.
The case focused upon a 1969 Supreme Court precedent in a case known as Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District that let public schools punish student speech when it would “substantially disrupt” a school community. At issue was whether that authority extended beyond the schoolhouse gates.
Ms. Levy, now an 18-year-old college student studying accounting, had been a member of the high school’s junior varsity cheerleading squad and tried out near the end of her freshman year for the varsity team. She made her Snapchat post in May 2017, two days after an unsuccessful tryout. She was 14 at the time.
On a Saturday at a Cocoa Hut convenience store in Mahanoy City in Pennsylvania’s coal region, she posted a photo of her and a friend raising their middle fingers, adding a caption using the same curse word four times to voice her displeasure with cheerleading, softball, school, and “everything.”
Ms. Levy’s photo was visible for 24 hours on Snapchat, along with another post questioning a younger girl’s selection to the varsity squad. Some cheerleaders and students chafed at the posts and the controversy disrupted classes, according to court papers. As punishment, Mahanoy Area High School coaches kicked her off the cheerleading squad for a year.
Ms. Levy and her parents sued the district, seeking reinstatement as a cheerleader and a judgment that her First Amendment rights had been violated. A federal judge ordered Ms. Levy’s reinstatement, finding that her actions had not been disruptive enough to warrant the punishment.
After the school district appealed, the Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided that the 1969 precedent does not apply to off-campus speech and that school officials may not regulate such speech.
President Joe Biden’s administration supported the district in the case, arguing that off-campus student speech deserves broad protection unless it threatens the school community or targets specific individuals, groups, or school functions.
The case involved the power only of public schools, as governmental institutions, in regulating speech, not private schools.