SCOTUS OKs Cheerleader's Profane Rant Off School Grounds
It's a fact that teenagers often have a hard time governing their emotions. To pretend otherwise would be to deny how beautifully messy being a teen is. Sometimes adults - especially those buzzkill teachers, principals, and superintendents - forget this.
This week, however, the U.S. Supreme Court, in an 8-1 ruling, smacked down a Pennsylvania high school for punishing a student for a profane social media rant that took place off of school grounds. Far from saying "kids and the First Amendment rule, adults drool," though, the justices failed to go further, giving schools some leeway to police some off-campus speech.
Punished for Being a Teenager
Back in 2017, then-14-year-old Brandi Levy did not make the varsity cheerleading team at Mahanoy Jr./Sr. High School in Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania.
Reacting as many 14-year-olds would, Brandi used some choice words to convey her anguish. "F--- school, f--- softball, f--- cheer, f--- everything," Levy said at the time. (Who among us?)
Her only mistake was a 21st-century one. Instead of just ranting to her friends while blowing off steam, she recorded herself and posted it to her Snapchat account, sharing it with 250 peers.
And someone (we're not saying who, but it was definitely a cheerleader) showed coaches the screenshots. Levy was then suspended from the junior varsity cheer squad for a year for violating team and school "rules."
Court Creates New Free Speech Hero
Even the U.S. Supreme Court (far from the coolest, hippest judicial body on the planet) thought that the school went too far and violated Levy's First Amendment rights for punishing off-campus speech.
In the majority opinion, Associate Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that while "it might be tempting to dismiss" Levy's colorful metaphors as not something we should worry about, "sometimes it is necessary to protect the superfluous in order to preserve the necessary."
In short, if we brush off Levy's case because "she's just a kid who said something dumb and the school should punish her however they want," then what is the point of even having a robust First Amendment?
In a swipe against the school intended to remind them of their role in society, Breyer was direct:
“The school itself has an interest in protecting a student's unpopular expression, especially when the expression takes place off campus. America's public schools are the nurseries of democracy. Our representative democracy only works if we protect the 'marketplace of ideas.'"
We'll also note here that Associate Justice Clarence Thomas chose to say "respect your elders" as the lone justice in dissent.
"Young people need to have the ability to express themselves without worrying about being punished when they get to school," Levy said in a statement. "I'm proud that my family and I advocated for the rights of millions of public school students."
Don't Go Doing Whatever You Want Just Yet!
However, in what can only be described as the verbose equivalent of a "but!" Breyer noted the court was not issuing a broad new standard. The need to protect the First Amendment must give way, even off-campus, "to a school's special need to prevent ... substantial disruption of learning-related activities or the protection of those who make up a school community." Those activities, according to Breyer, could include:
- Bullying and harassment targeting other students
- Threatening teachers or others
- Cheating on school assignments
- Violating rules in online school activities
- Hacking school computers
So, students, cuss away when not at school, but make sure you don't say anything that a school might term as "disruptive." And remember: What you view as disruptive and what teachers, administrators, and other parents view as disruptive are quite different. Otherwise, you too could end up before the Supreme Court.
However, while the justices earned no Profiles in Courage award this time for their big punt on issuing a sweeping ruling to protect all students, this is still a win for student speech. Yale Law professor Justin Driver said this was the first time in decades that a high school student has won a free speech case at the Supreme Court.
- Find an Education Attorney Near You (FindLaw's Lawyer Directory)
- Learn More About the First Amendment (FindLaw's U.S. Constitution)
- SCOTUS Hands Religious Conservatives Another Win In Narrow Ruling (FindLaw's U.S. Supreme Court)
- Iowa Man Defends Right to Cuss Out Cops on Facebook (FindLaw's Legal Grounds)
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