Technology

Can Schools Punish Kids for Off-Campus Snapchats?

"The notion that a school can discipline a student for that kind of...non-harassing expression is contrary to our First Amendment tradition."

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In the 1969 case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited public school officials from punishing students for exercising their First Amendment rights on school grounds unless the speech at issue "would materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline and in the operation of the school." This year, the Court will hear arguments in a new case that asks whether that rule should be interpreted to let school officials punish students for off-campus social media posts.

Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. originated in 2017, when a high school freshman and junior varsity cheerleader went on Snapchat to complain about her failure to make the varsity cheerleading squad. The student—known by the initials B.L. because she is a minor—posted a picture of herself and one of her friends with their middle fingers raised. The post went up on a Saturday, accompanied by this message: "fuck school fuck softball fuck cheer fuck everything." That post soon came to the attention of a cheerleading coach, which led to B.L.'s suspension from the squad.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit ruled that the school was prohibited from imposing that sort of punishment for constitutionally protected speech. "Tinker does not apply to off-campus speech—that is, speech that is outside school-owned, -operated, or -supervised channels and that is not reasonably interpreted as bearing the school's imprimatur," the appeals court held.

The Mahanoy Area School District wants the Supreme Court to reverse that ruling. Social media and related new technology act "as a megaphone for off-campus speech, ensuring that it reverberates throughout the classroom and commands the school's attention," the district's lawyers told the justices. But thanks to the 3rd Circuit, school officials have been left with no authority "to discipline students for off-campus speech, no matter how obvious it is that the speech is directed at the school and will significantly disrupt the school environment."

B.L. and her lawyers counter that the 3rd Circuit's ruling is a straightforward application of the First Amendment. "In a weekend comment in an evanescent Snapchat message," they told the justices, "B.L. swore in expressing her disappointment at not making the varsity team to her friends. The notion that a school can discipline a student for that kind of spontaneous, non-threatening, non-harassing expression is contrary to our First Amendment tradition, and finds no support in this Court's student speech cases."