Cheerleader Wins Free Speech Supreme Court Case, Expanding Protected Speech for Students

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By Quentin Choy

June 23, 2021

In typical teenage fashion, 14-year-old Brandi Levy vented on social media, making Snapchat posts out of frustration at not making the varsity cheerleading team. “Fuck school fuck softball fuck cheer fuck everything,” she wrote in a Snapchat with her and a friend flipping off the camera. Levy posted the picture in an off-campus store, and it was screenshotted and shown to the cheer coaches.

The school district kicked Levy off of the junior varsity team and suspended her from the team for a year. Following the suspension. she and her family sued the school district and eventually ended up at the Supreme Court.

In the case, Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. (2021), the Court ruled in Levy’s favor with a vote of 8-1, with Justice Clarence Thomas being the sole dissenting justice citing vagueness in the ruling in terms of First Amendment protections.

“At that level of generality, I agree. But the majority omits important detail. What authority does a school have when it operates in loco parentis? How much less authority do schools have over off-campus speech and conduct? And how does a court decide if speech is on or off campus?”

Justice Clarence Thomas in his dissenting opinion, June 23, 2021

The representative for the school district framed Levy’s speech as disruptive to the school’s cheer team, citing potential breakdown of team unity and disrespect of authority to the cheer coach. Representatives for Levy framed the school’s punishment as unforgiving, too harsh, and too wide-reaching, going outside of the school district’s jurisdiction in punishing speech made on the Internet and physically in a convenience store.

The Roberts Court.

However the Court in its opinion wrote that “we do not believe the special characteristics that give schools additional license to regulate student speech always disappear when a school regulates speech that takes place off campus. The school’s regulatory interests remain significant in some off-campus circumstances.” In cases of severe bullying, online harassment, or threats aimed at teachers or students, the Court ruled that school districts still hold some level of power in monitoring speech of students off-campus.

The Court used the Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines (1969) as a framework on which to build upon First Amendment protections for student speech. In Tinker v. Des Moines, the Des Moines school district suspended Mary Beth Tinker and John Tinker for wearing black armbands with peace symbols on them to school in a show of protest to the Vietnam War. The school district argued that the Tinkers’ political speech was disruptive to other students’ learning.

When the case reached the Supreme Court, the Court ruled in the Tinkers’ favor with a vote of 7-2, arguing that the students’ First Amendment right to freedom of speech was not lost when they stepped onto school property.

Mary Beth Tinker and John Tinker. Courtesy of the American Civil Liberties Union.

I believe Mahanoy School District v. B.L. (2021) is the modern equivalent of Tinker in that the case took up how much a school can regulate a student’s speech off school property and on the Internet, an issue that wasn’t around during the Tinker ruling.

While schools have a limited reach of regulating off-campus speech as mentioned earlier, with severe bullying, harassment, or threats, the Court made the right decision in protecting and expanding students’ free speech online, no matter how offensive individuals, in this case, the cheer coach may find such speech.

While regulation of speech may be slightly different for private colleges, speech should expand on public campuses so that more ideas and ideologies may be shared, explored, and debated. I hope to see a further expansion of free speech rights for students in the future, not just by the Supreme Court but also by Congress and the Presidency as well.

Quentin Choy, creator of <em>WeTheCommoners Blog</em>
Quentin Choy, creator of WeTheCommoners Blog

Quentin is a student of Political Science. He became interested in history and politics in 2015 watching the Republican and Democratic primaries as well as the 2016 General Election.

He is from Hawaii and currently attends school in Colorado.

Image Courtesy of The Arkansas Democrat Gazette.

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