Supreme Court

This School Punished a Cheerleader for an Off-Campus Snapchat. Does That Violate the First Amendment?

The Supreme Court weighs the power of school officials to punish students for off-campus speech.

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Can a public school punish a student for an off-campus social media post? Or does the First Amendment protect student speech that occurs outside of school grounds and school-sponsored functions?

The U.S. Supreme Court tackled those questions this week during oral arguments in Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. The case arose in 2017 when a high school freshman and junior varsity cheerleader who had failed to make the varsity squad vented her frustration on the social media site Snapchat. The student—known by the initials B.L.—posted a picture of herself and one of her friends with their middle fingers raised. The post went up on a Saturday and was accompanied by the message "fuck school fuck softball fuck cheer fuck everything." B.L. was kicked off the team for a year after a coach saw the post and took offense.

In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969), the Supreme Court said that school officials may not interfere with students' First Amendment rights on school grounds unless the speech "would materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline and in the operation of the school."

Lisa Blatt, the attorney for the Mahanoy Area School District, urged the Supreme Court to apply the Tinker standard to student speech that occurs off-campus if the speech may cause an "on-campus disruption." According to Blatt, "the internet's ubiquity, instantaneous and mass dissemination, and potential permanence make the speaker's location irrelevant."

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawyer David Cole, the attorney for B.L. and her parents, told the Court that the school's approach "would require students to effectively carry the schoolhouse on their backs in terms of speech rights everywhere they go." For example, Cole said, "a father shouldn't have to worry that if he brings his daughter to a Black Lives Matter protest about mistreatment of a black student at school, and she posts a photo on Facebook, she might be suspended based on potential disruption at the school."

Several justices seemed to be concerned about that very thing, asking whether the school's approach would result in students getting punished for talking about politically controversial topics. Justice Samuel Alito offered this hypothetical:

A student believes that someone who is biologically male is a male, and there is a student who is biologically male but identifies as a woman, has adopted a female name, but the student who has the objection refers to this person by the person's prior male name and uses male pronouns. Can the school do something about that?

Justice Elena Kagan made a similar point while questioning Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm L. Stewart, who appeared as an amicus in support of the Mahanoy Area School District. Say a student emails her classmates "that they should refuse to do any work for English class until the teacher changes the syllabus to include more authors of color."

That's "school speech," Stewart answered. "So that can be punishable," Kagan replied, sounding surprised. It can be punished "if it causes substantial disruption" at school, the government attorney answered.

ACLU lawyer Cole came in for his share of grilling too. In particular, several of the justices seemed concerned that his preferred approach would leave school officials with no tools to stop online bullying and similarly abusive behavior among students.

Cole responded by stressing the need for "clear definitions of off-campus bullying and harassment consistent with First Amendment principles." He concluded by reminding the Court that the school punished this particular student "for a momentary expression of frustration on a weekend out of school." To let that be the rule, he said, "would teach students they can never speak candidly with their friends without worrying that a school official will deem their views potentially disruptive and suspend them or punish them. That is exactly the wrong lesson to teach."

A decision in Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. is expected by late June.

NEXT: Joe Biden Wants To Close the 'Boyfriend Loophole.' Here's What That Means.

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  1. A student believes that someone who is biologically male is a male, and there is a student who is biologically male but identifies as a woman, has adopted a female name, but the student who has the objection refers to this person by the person’s prior male name and uses male pronouns. Can the school do something about that?

    Oh, FFS! Just have the Attorney General charge “the student” with a Federal hate crime and be done with it!

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    2. This sounds like more of a ‘code of conduct’ thing. A coach didn’t want someone that acted like that on the squad, so she got booted for a year. I don’t see it as a First Amendment issue.

      1. So any agent of the State can punish someone who expresses a harmless opinion and you can’t see how it’s a freedom of speech issue?

      2. Yes, I agree with you on that one. It is not like the school suspended or expelled her. The coach just felt that someone with her attitude is detrimental to morale and team cohesion. There is nothing in the Constitution giving coaches the “right to cut” but it has always been a part of American sports. Not everyone makes the team.

  2. Sticks and stones can break my bones,
    but call time the wrong name and you will be arrested.

    1. I don’t approve of online bullying, but the better approach is more speech, pointing out the bully. Admittedly, it’s not perfect because kids are often mean, and have been since Cain and Able. It’s just now often documented in social media instead of the grapevine. But it is just speech.

      Certainly, this fits in with the liberal approach to freedom of speech: claim speech they don’t like to hear harms them; thus, they’ve a right to use violence to protect themselves from it.

      Which gets back to sticks and stones, instead of words.

      1. This is also an argument for school choice and getting government out of running education. Imagine how a private school would handle it, because it would be different with better outcomes for everyone. In the case of the cheerleader, a private school might decide to:
        A) let the parents know, the school is concerned the student is unfairly disparaging the school or the cheerleader judges, and offer to let the student withdraw with a refund for the remainder of the year.
        B) The school has a contract whereby such posts require the students withdraw, or a dispute resolution process may be specified
        C) I’m sure there’s even better options

        Consider, Brearly, in Manhatten where a parent posted his letter to the school and sent it to all the parents, criticizing the school for indoctrinating the students. Would he be punished for affecting the school, if it was a government run school?

        1. All these ‘private’ schools are going to be financed with government vouchers. So limiting 1A rights would simply be govt undermining the 1A through the side door

  3. ludicrous this has to goto the SC. fuck you, school.

    1. In fairness, the student (and her parents) won at the lower courts. It’s the school that decided to escalate this to the Supreme Court.

      1. that’s the fuck you, school part.

  4. “would teach students they can never speak candidly with their friends without worrying that a school official will deem their views potentially disruptive and suspend them or punish them. That is exactly the wrong lesson to teach.”

    That is what universities and corporations teach these days. Sorry but remember liberaltarians say that corporations can violate your rights any time because freemarket laissezlesbontemprouler or whatever koch bullshit they are pushing.

  5. This particular case is not difficult. The cussin’ kid won at the district court and the 3rd Circuit, but the school – with the support and participation of (now, Biden’s) DOJ – appealed. They don’t like the bright-line rule of “speech at school” vs “speech outside school” that could be applied to situations like cyberbullying, ranking the girls on best tits, best blowjobs, etc. that would cause boners and class disruption no matter when sent. The Justices tied themselves up in knots with their increasingly divorced-from-the-facts hypotheticals which were not this case. Look for a narrow ruling that says in this case, the school overreacted and was wrong to discipline the foul-mouthed cheerer, but there is and can be no bright line “in-school” vs “out of school” speech given social media.

  6. When your children start a new school year tell them to sign nothing unless they bring it to you for review. Many School Districts make students sign a “Code of Conduct”. These “Codes” have been used to punish students for things that have happened off school property, at non school sponsored events and even on weekends or summer vacation.
    Several years ago several students were given suspension because they consumed beer during a church sponsored trip to Germany. At that time they were of legal age in Germany and with their parents. The School District cited that the Code of Conduct the students signed gave them the authority to punish them. A Judge later lifted the suspensions, but, upheld the District banning the students from all extracurricular activities.
    Several students were suspended for smoking. It didn’t matter that it was on private property on a weekend and that they were of LEGAL age at the time. Again the “Code” was the reason given.

    As long as we are on the subject, who gave schools the mission of fighting “cyberbullying”. I can understand them policing their computers and network, but having the authority anywhere on the internet?

    1. If cyberbullying speech “would materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline and in the operation of the school,” then the school can step in and regulate. That is the current law.

      1. Doesn’t make it right.

      2. That’s as much bullshit as cyber bullying. Schools aren’t supposed to be parents or the law outside of school…when did they get permission to consume their students’ lives?

    2. That power is an extension of the Obama dictate that school must police and investigate claims of sexual harassment and gender bias under Title IV enforcement.

      1. Thank you for your handle. I’ve chuckled every time I’ve seen it so far.

    3. Fun fact. When my daughter entered high school, the conduct code specifically included pencils and pens in the list of “prohibited weapons”. I pointed out to the principal he was in violation at the time due to a bunch of those “weapons” on his deck. I also asked if it was permissible to present work done in crayon.
      (note: the written policy was never changed, but my daughter was never accused of bringing weapons to school)

      1. Huh. Somehow the *TSA* permits those weapons.

  7. The tyranny of the people in power (in this case the school) is more of a threat to a civil society than a individual saying something that makes them uncomfortable (in this case a teen who was upset).

    I have zero patience for the authoritarian mentality of people in positions of power. I have zero patience for the authoritarian mentality of the woke mob.

    There are only a few rules necessary for a civil society and largely they can be boiled down to treating people how you would like to be treated. We don’t need the vast majority of laws and rules these authoritarian types are pushing for or have implemented.

    1. Better if they’re boiled down to your rights end where my nose begins. I’m sure a lot of people would like to be treated to Other People’s Money but that’s not something that should be codified in law.

  8. All schooling should be private. Problem solved.

  9. An inalienable right is one that cannot be given or taken away.

    Do you understand? That means that there can be no legally binding contract between anyone to restrict any speech whatsoever.

    It doesn’t matter what your school rules are, nor your employers. If you are persecuted for exercising free speech your rights have been violated and the law MUST have your back.

    Anything less is a violation of the constitution.

  10. On a scale of Biden to 10, this is about a 3. Rick Santorum territory.

  11. It doesn’t matter what your school rules are, nor your employers. If you are persecuted for exercising free speech your rights have been
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  14. This is defense of the first amendment? You all have lost your grasp on reality.
    First, you have a spoiled brat acting like, a spoiled brat. She didn’t make varsity cheer, so she disparaged the school and the athletics/extracurricular teams she was a part of. So a coach did the RIGHT thing and suspended her from the team. She wants to disparage the team/activity, whatever, then fine. But their are consequences to that. There is no requirement that she must participate in cheer – it’s a voluntary activity. As such, it goes both ways, or are we hypocrites on this message board. Voluntary engagement. The involvement in the activity is voluntary on both the coach and student-athletes part. If she wanted to quit, the coach cannot force her to stay because – its voluntary.

    Anyhow, decent, intelligent, worthwhile humans acting as her parents would have taken the opportunity to help their daughter grow up and not be so stupid and reckless with her use of social media. Instead, they are using 1A to defend her stupidity. Worthless parents raising a soon to be crying, complaining free-loading loser that contributes nothing to our society. But hey, this is a first amendment hill to die on. Really??

    Good for the coach for suspending her from the team. One, her attitude sucked and two, maybe if this is actually important to her, she’d have learned about how to properly express her frustration in a constructive manner. Instead, now we have reinforcement of her stupidity by her enabling parents, and people who cannot understand this is not a first amendment issue. The first time she doesn’t get a promotion in her life, and she goes to social media and complains about it or disparages her company, they’ll fire her, and rightfully so. And at that point, there will not be a first amendment right to hide her stupidity from.

    You all need to get a grip on reality.

    1. Your take is literally that if she says dirty words anywhere at any time the school should be able to punish her for it? Teenagers aren’t allowed to get frustrated anymore?

      That’s some puritanical nonsense. School authority should end at the property line.

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