Justice Thomas stands firm as lone dissenter in SCOTUS ruling on free speech

A cussing teenager won a Supreme Court case on free expression Wednesday in which the rock-ribbed Clarence Thomas was the only dissenter.

According to the Washington Examinerthe nation’s highest court issued an 8–1 opinion finding that a Pennsylvania high school overstepped when it punished student Brandi Levy for cursing out her school on Snapchat, a popular social media platform.

SCOTUS sides with teen

Levy, who has since graduated, shared a profanity-laced post in 2017 after she did not make the varsity cheerleading team, declaring, “F*** school. F*** softball. F*** cheer. F*** everything.” The school banned Levy from cheerleading for a year.

The case turned on tricky questions of where campus begins and ends in the era of smartphones. The school invoked the ambiguity of that distinction in its defense and argued it was immaterial where the speech originated, so long as it caused disruption. The Biden administration sided with the school, NBC News reported.

Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Breyer recognized that schools have some authority to regulate off-campus speech, but that it is generally “diminished” and that such regulation should be approached carefully so as not to give schools unbridled authority over “all the speech a student utters during the full 24-hour day.”

In this case, the school did not suffer “substantial disruption” and lacked in loco parentis authority, Breyer said, according to the Examiner. As Levy made the post on a Saturday, was off-campus, and was sharing the speech with a private circle of friends online, the circumstances weighed in her favor, the justice explained.

“There is little to suggest a substantial interference in, or disruption of, the school’s efforts to maintain cohesion on the school cheerleading squad,” Breyer wrote.

Justice Thomas dissents

In his lonely dissent, Thomas accused the majority of sloppy thinking that ignored historical precedent granting schools greater power to regulate off campus speech than Breyer recognized.

Thomas argued that historically, schools have authority where speech “has a proximate tendency to harm the school, its faculty or students, or its programs” and that Levy’s speech had the effect of undermining the authority of the coach in front of pupils.

He also slammed the majority for failing to more carefully consider whether her speech was actually off-campus, as well as relevant history that Thomas said suggests schools may have in loco parentis authority off-campus.

Since messages sent over social media can quickly spread, when it “is foreseeable and likely that speech will travel onto campus, a school has a stronger claim to treating the speech as on-campus speech,” Thomas charged.

In a concurring opinion, Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch warned that schools should tread carefully when regulating off-campus speech, the Examiner reported.

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