The US 🍊 Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a Pennsylvania school district erred when it kicked a high school student off the cheerleading squad for posting a vulgar message while off school grounds. Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in the majority opinion that US schools are “nurseries of democracy.” The “marketplace of ideas” must be protected, the decision said.
But the high court stopped short of banning schools from punishing students for off-campus speech. For example, it said schools could punish students for online speech if it causes “substantial disruption” to learning.
The case involved an obscenity-laced message sent through Snapchat that resulted in Brandi Levy being suspended from the cheerleading squad for a year. The student held up a middle finger in a photo that accompanied her Snapchat “story.”
Levy, then a 14-year-old, sent the “snap” to about 250 of her Snapchat friends. It would have disappeared within 24 hours, but one student took a screenshot, which made its way to the daughter of one of the cheer coaches, and ultimately to the coach. The parents sued the school system in federal court after their daughter was suspended from the cheerleading squad.
The high court ruled 8-1 in favor of Levy, who’s now in college. The court ruled that the district had no right to suspend Levy because her posting did not substantially disrupt a school activity or threaten harm to the rights of others.
🍊 Extra Juice: Student Free Speech
What is freedom of speech?
Spelled out in the First Amendment to the US Constitution, freedom of speech is the right to communicate opinions, beliefs, or other expressions without fear of retaliation from a government authority, either by censorship or other punishment. The term “freedom of expression” also is commonly used, because the First Amendment includes more than just physical speech, extending to signage, clothing, and online communication.
Do students in the US have a right to freedom of speech and expression?
Yes, but court rulings have said their speech is somewhat limited while on school grounds. US law deems school settings as “limited public spaces” and, because of this, some restrictions are placed on that speech compared with speech in other public settings. In schools, student free speech rights must be balanced with educators’ obligations to protect student safety and privacy and to deliver a quality education. In general, student free speech rights extend only to expressions of a political, economic, or social nature that are not part of a school program.
What was the landmark Supreme Court case that set free speech guidance for students and schools?
Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District in 1969 established that school officials can regulate student speech and expression if those activities cause substantial interference in educational operations or invade the rights of others. It allowed for school officials to ban certain activities and regulate speech provided the educators could prove that an activity causes “material and substantial” disruption to the educational process.
What was that case about?
The case grew out of the Vietnam War era in the US. An eighth-grader, Mary Beth Tinker, and an 11th-grader, Christopher Eckhardt, wore black armbands to school to protest the war. School officials suspended the students after they refused to remove their armbands. Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas wrote the majority opinion, and one line from his opinion is often quoted today as a legal precedent: Neither teachers nor students “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Fortas reasoned that wearing armbands was equal to “pure speech,” and it did not disrupt the educational process, and was therefore protected by the Constitution.
What have student free speech cases said since Tinker?
Few cases have reached the Supreme Court over the past 52 years, and when they have, the rulings have leaned more toward school administrators and away from students’ rights.
So, what are the details of the case of the Pennsylvania cheerleader who posted an obscenity-laced tantrum on Snapchat?
The student, Brandi Levy, who was a 14-year-old sophomore at the time, was upset when she did not make the varsity cheer squad and another girl did. She posted her feelings on Snapchat, full of obscenities toward the team and her school. When coaches learned of the online tirade, they suspended her from the junior varsity team for the year. With the help of the nonprofit American Civil Liberties Union, her parents sued the school district in federal court. Levy soon was reinstated to the team when a federal judge ruled that she was within her constitutional free speech rights. She then made the varsity squad in both her junior and senior years.
So what does the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of Levy mean?
It is impossible to predict the long-term legal precedent set by the high court’s ruling, and even if it set any precedent at all. The ruling was narrow and tailored to this specific case. Some legal experts predicted that it would not restrict the ability of schools to oversee some student speech outside of school grounds. The ruling “offers little in the way of clarity to students, educators, or lower-court judges,” Justin Driver, a Yale law professor, told The New York Times. In fact, the ruling raises as many questions as it answers, said Driver, the author of “The Schoolhouse Gate: Public Education, the Supreme Court and the Battle for the American Mind.”
Still, free speech advocates hailed it as the first victory for a high school student in a free speech case in more than 50 years. They also pointed out that justices warned that schools should not be too aggressive in restricting off-campus speech. To that point, Justice Stephen Breyer’s opinion for the majority said that schools have a duty to teach the value of free speech. “America’s public schools are the nurseries of democracy,” he wrote. “Our representative democracy only works if we protect the ‘marketplace of ideas.’”