The Supreme Court sided Wednesday with a foul-mouthed high school cheerleader, saying school officials did not have a right to punish her off-campus speech blasting the cheer squad on social media.
The 8-1 ruling was significant, as the justices grappled with students’ First Amendment rights off-campus and on social media in the digital age.
The court recognized that her social media post was vulgar criticism of the cheer squad, but said the school went too far in punishing the cheerleader for an off-campus post.
“This criticism did not involve features that would place it outside the First Amendment’s ordinary protection,” Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote for the court.
Brandi Levy, the cheerleader who has since graduated from high school, was kicked off the junior varsity team for a foul-mouthed social media post that the legal battle in 2017. She is identified only as “B.L.” in court papers because she was a minor when the case first began.
“F*** school f*** softball f*** cheer f*** everything,” read the Pennsylvania teen’s post over not making the varsity cheer squad.
Her parents sued the Mahanoy Area School District in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, arguing the post was made off-campus.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit ruled in favor of the cheerleader, saying the school violated her First Amendment rights.
The school district took the case to the Supreme Court, arguing that the post caused a disturbance at school and officials must be able to address speech that causes a substantial disruption.
In the high court’s opinion, the majority of the justices said there was no evidence of substantial disruption and the school did violate Ms. Levy‘s free speech rights.
Ms. Levy said she was happy the justices recognized her school went too far.
“I was frustrated, I was 14 years old, and I expressed my frustration the way teenagers do today. Young people need to have the ability to express themselves without worrying about being punished when they get to school. I never could have imagined that one simple snap would turn into a Supreme Court case, but I’m proud that my family and I advocated for the rights of millions of public school students,” she said.
David Cole, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented Ms. Levy, called the ruling a victory for millions of students in public school, noting it preserves their free speech rights.
“The school, in this case, asked the court to allow it to punish speech that it considered ‘disruptive,’ regardless of where it occurs. 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,” Mr. Cole said.
The 14-page ruling, though, did not set a broad First Amendment rule to regulate off-campus speech.
Yet the high court acknowledged that schools may have an interest in regulating some off-campus speech when there is a threat of bullying or harassment.
Due to an increase in computer-based learning, the justices said they will not detail a list of what counts as “off-campus” speech protected by the First Amendment.
Instead, the majority highlighted features of speech that would decrease a school’s interest in regulating it.
First, the justices said a school rarely stands in the position of the parents when it comes to off-campus speech.
Second, the court warned that a school must be careful in regulating off-campus speech because it could go too far in censoring political or religious speech.
And third, the court said schools must protect the “marketplace of ideas.”
“B.L. uttered the kind of pure speech to which, were she an adult, the First Amendment would provide strong protection,” Justice Breyer wrote.
Joie L. Green, superintendent for the Mahanoy Area School District, saw the ruling as a win for schools, too, noting the justices refused to say school districts don’t have the right to police all off-campus speech.
“The Supreme Court instead enumerated many examples of situations when school districts can regulate off-campus speech and made it clear that its list was not exclusive,” she said. ” So, although the Court upheld the $1 judgment in favor of Ms. Levy, we are very pleased that the Court agreed with our arguments about schools’ authority to address off-campus speech under a wide variety of situations.”
Justice Clarence Thomas disagreed with the majority, writing in a dissent that school officials’ decision to punish Ms. Levy was supported by more than 150 years of precedent.
“A more searching review reveals that schools historically could discipline students in circumstances like those presented here,” Justice Thomas wrote.
The Biden administration had argued on behalf of the school.
Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association said the justices struck the “right balance.”
“The court recognized that ‘America’s public schools are the nurseries of democracy.’ And we model that democracy by ensuring that students have a right to speak in an environment that is free of bullying and harassment,” she said.
Free speech advocates called the decision a “landmark victory.”
“The justices have made the right call, recognizing how a judgment for the school district would undoubtedly open the floodgates for school authorities to mete out discipline to students for all manner of off-campus speech,” said Jonathan Friedman, director at PEN America, a free expression advocacy group.
The case was Mahanoy Area School District v. Levy.