Pennsylvania cheerleaders wins free speech case

Microphones placed in front of the US Supreme Court building in Washington, DC, the United States, on Tuesday, November 10, 2020.

Stefani Reynolds | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a Pennsylvania high school violated the First Amendment rights of a cheerleader by punishing her for using vulgar language criticized on social media by the school.

The 8-1 statement upheld the lower court rulings against Mahanoy Area High School’s decision to suspend then-student Brandi Levy from her junior cheerleading roster for a year via two Snapchat posts she sent off-school .

The judges had weighed whether a 1969 Supreme Court ruling that gave public schools the ability to regulate certain idioms was applicable to a case where the speech was off campus.

In its ruling on Wednesday, the Supreme Court said, “Courts must be more skeptical of a school’s efforts to regulate off-campus language as it may mean the student cannot make this type of speech at all.”

“The school itself has an interest in protecting a student’s unpopular expression, especially when the expression is off-campus,” because “America’s public schools are the kindergartens of democracy,” wrote Judge Stephen Breyer, who wrote the majority opinion.

Judge Clarence Thomas, who turned 73 on Wednesday, disagreed.

Levy said in a statement, “The school has gone too far and I’m glad the Supreme Court approves.”

“I was frustrated, I was 14 years old and I expressed my frustration the way teenagers do today. Young people need the ability to express themselves without worrying about being punished in school,” said Levy.

“I never imagined that a simple snap would turn into a Supreme Court case, but I’m proud that my family and I stood up for the rights of millions of public school students.”

Brandi Levy, a former cheerleader at Mahanoy Area High School in Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania, poses in an undated photo taken by the American Civil Liberties Union.


Levy, whose name was abbreviated to “BL” in court records, did not make it into her school’s cheerleading team as a high school student in May 2017, but instead won a place on the junior college roster.

While at a Cocoa Hut convenience store, she posted two messages on Snapchat to vent her frustration at missing out on college and not getting the position she’d been on the softball team the school wanted.

“F — school f — softball f — cheer f — everything,” she wrote in the first snap, which showed a picture of Levy and a friend with their middle fingers raised.

The second picture had a caption that read, “Love, like me and [another student] I am told that we need a year jv before we go to college, but that is[t] doesn’t matter to others? “This post also featured an upside-down smiley face emoji.

The news was reported to the cheerleading coaches and principal at Mahanoy City School, who found they had broken the rules and suspended Levy from the squad for the coming year.

The Supreme Court’s opinion found that the 3rd District Court of Appeal had ruled in favor of Levy on the grounds that the 1969 decision – Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District – “did not apply because schools did not have a special license to regulate student speaking off campus. “

But the Supreme Court on Wednesday disagreed with that view.

Instead, it noted that “Although public schools may have a particular interest in regulating some students’ off-campus speech, the particular interests offered by the school are insufficient to reflect BL’s interest in freedom of expression in this case overcome.”

Breyer wrote that there were three characteristics of the language of off-campus students that influenced a school’s ability to regulate it, as opposed to on-campus language.

The first characteristic, according to the court, is that a school is rarely “in loco parentis” – instead of the parents – when a student is off campus.

Its second characteristic is that schools have a “heavy burden” justifying off-campus language rules, otherwise they would be technically able to intervene in what a student is saying throughout the 24-hour day.

The third characteristic, wrote Breyer, is that schools, as “kindergartens of democracy”, should have an interest in protecting unpopular expressions of opinion, “especially when the expression of opinion takes place off-campus.”

David Cole, the American Civil Liberties Union legal director who campaigned in the Supreme Court on Levy’s case, said, “Protecting the freedom of young people to speak outside of school is vital, and this is a great victory for the freedom of speech Millions of students attending our country’s public schools. “

“The school has asked the court in this case to punish speech that it considers ‘disruptive’ regardless of where it occurs,” said Cole in a statement. “If the court had accepted this argument, it would have jeopardized all manner of speech by young people, including what they said about politics, school operations and general teenage frustrations.”

“The message of this judgment is clear – freedom of speech is for everyone, and that includes public school students,” said Cole.

However, the Mahanoy Area School District said it was “satisfied and upheld with today’s Supreme Court decision.”

“The school district unanimously won the matter on which it requested a Supreme Court review: all nine judges dismissed the third district’s conclusion that school districts are not empowered to regulate off-campus language,” the district said in one Statement his attorney sent to CNBC. Lisa Blatt.

“The Supreme Court ruled that it ‘does not agree with the Third District arguments,'” the statement said. “The Supreme Court instead enumerated many examples of situations where school districts can regulate off-campus language and made it clear that its list was not exclusive.”

“While the court upheld the $ 1 ruling in Ms. Levy’s benefit, we are delighted that the court upheld our arguments about the schools’ authority to speak in a variety of off-campus situations. This decision is an important endorsement of the To protect authority of schools, students and staff and to fulfill the educational mission of schools.

Thomas wrote in his dissent that “the majority fail to consider whether schools will often have more, not less, authority to discipline students who transmit language through social media.”

Thomas explained that since language spoken on social media can be seen and shared on campus, “there is often a greater tendency to harm the school environment than face-to-face conversation off campus.”

He also wrote that the majority could not explain why they were breaking a previous rule that schools can regulate language off campus “as long as it tends to harm the school, its faculty or students, or its programs”.

The “basis” of majority decision-making is independent of anything stable, “wrote Thomas,” and courts (and schools) will almost certainly not know what exactly the opinion of the court means today. “

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