After learning she would not be on the varsity cheerleading team, Brandi Levy sent out a Snapchat to her friends with numerous vulgarities. When school officials learned of the posts, they suspended her from the junior varsity cheerleading squad for the upcoming year. That suspension has now been ruled unconstitutional by an 8-1 vote from the United States Supreme Court. Only Justice Clarence Thomas dissented from the Court’s opinion.
If the Mahanoy Area School District leaders had their way, students would be on speech probation constantly. As the Court noted, “from the student speaker’s perspective, regulations of off-campus speech, when coupled with regulations of on-campus speech, include all the speech a student utters during the full 24-hour day.”
The landmark Tinker v. Des Moines case from 1969 held that student speech made on campus was protected under certain conditions. Here in Mahanoy Area High School District v. B.L., Ms. Levy made her Snapchat and hit the send button off campus. The Court said the “features of much off-campus speech mean that the leeway the First Amendment grants to schools in light of their special characteristics is diminished.”
The Court quoted itself from Tinker, saying for “officials to justify prohibition of a particular expression of opinion, it must be able to show that its action was caused by something more than a mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint.” Some speech, including extreme bullying, threats of violence, and other messaging, may still be banned by schools.
Read more from Scott D. Cosenza.