The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday in favor of a former Pennsylvania high school student who was suspended from her school’s cheerleading team after she posted a series of Snapchats with expletives, finding she could not be punished by the school for cursing online.
The case involved Brandi Levy, who in 2017 posted to Snapchat “f**k school, f**k softball, f**k cheer, f**k everything,” after she failed to make the varsity cheerleading squad at Mahanoy Area High School.
Levy was later suspended from the squad for the upcoming year for her language. Levy’s parents sued the school, arguing Levy’s freedom of speech was violated.
A district court granted an injunction ordering the school to reinstate Levy to the cheerleading team, using Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District to make their decision. (RELATED: Conservative Groups Rejoice Over ‘Substantial Win For Religious Freedom’ In Supreme Court Ruling On Catholic Abortion)
The Supreme Court ruled in Tinker in 1969 students could wear black arm bands to protest the Vietnam War, with the court saying students don’t “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” The court did find, however, disruptive speech on school grounds could be subject to punishment.
The Third Circuit affirmed the District Court’s ruling on Levy’s behalf.
The Supreme Court ruled 8-1 the precedent set by Tinker did apply in this decision and that Levy’s speech is protected under the First Amendment.
“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 interest in free expression in this case,” the court ruled.
“The school itself has an interest in protecting a student’s unpopular expression, especially when the expression takes place off campus, because America’s public schools are the nurseries of democracy.”
The high court noted Levy’s post did not specifically mention the school, nor did it threaten anyone.
The Mahanoy District argued they should be allowed to punish speech that takes place off-campus to help combat cyber-bullying and prevent disruption on school grounds.
“The school argues that it was trying to prevent disruption, if not within the classroom, then within the bounds of a school-sponsored extracurricular activity,”Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the majority. “But we can find no evidence in the record of the sort of ‘substantial disruption’ of a school activity or a threatened harm to the rights of others that might justify the school’s action.”
“It might be tempting to dismiss B.L.’s words as unworthy of the robust First Amendment protections discussed herein,” Breyer continued. “But sometimes it is necessary to protect the superfluous in order to preserve the necessary.”
Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, claiming students who take part in extracurricular activities “have a greater potential, by virtue of their participation, to harm those programs.”
The majority did note, however, that there are some cases involving “off-campus circumstances” in which the “school’s regulatory interests remain significant” such as “severe bullying or harassment targeting particular individuals” or other threats.
The ACLU, which argued the case, celebrated the ruling.
“Protecting young people’s free speech rights when they are outside of school is vital, and this is a huge victory for the free speech rights of millions of students who attend our nation’s public schools,” Legal Director of the Pennsylvania ACLU David Cole said in a statement. “The school in this case asked the court to allow it to punish speech that it considered ‘disruptive,’ regardless of where it occurs.”
So proud to have been able to represent Brandi Levy as she stood up for the speech rights of 50 million young people across this country — AND WON! And so grateful to my fantastic team from @ACLU @aclupa @Schnader
— David Cole (@DavidColeACLU) June 23, 2021
“If the court had accepted that argument, it would have put in peril all manner of young people’s speech, including their expression on politics, school operations, and general teen frustrations. The message from this ruling is clear – free speech is for everyone, and that includes public school students.”