The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this week to uphold a lower court decision, thus bolstering the free speech rights of students outside of a school setting.
In an 8–1 decision, the high court’s justices affirmed that a Pennsylvania school district did not have the authority to punish a cheerleader for an expletive-laden social media post, the Washington Examiner reported.
Court rejects school’s position
Brandi Levy was a student at Mahanoy Area High School when she was suspended for a year over a Snapchat message she posted after learning that she did not make the cheerleading squad.
“F*** school,” she wrote, according to the Examiner. “F*** softball. F*** cheer. F*** everything.”
For their part, school officials argued that Levy’s comments “substantially” disrupted order and that it acted “in loco parentis” by issuing the suspension. The court rejected both arguments. Specifically, justices responded in the majority decision that her message was posted on a weekend, not a school day, and was directed at her private social media network rather than the entire school.
Justice Stephen Breyer wrote the majority opinion, acknowledging that schools are entitled to some leeway in regulating off-campus speech by students but insisting that this case did not fall under those parameters.
Nevertheless, Breyer noted that he did not necessarily agree with the broader decisions reached by lower courts. He admitted that it has become harder to determine where the lines between free speech and a school’s right to discipline students are in the age of social media and online communication.
“School officials should proceed cautiously”
“If today’s decision teaches any lesson, it must be that the regulation of many types of off-premises student speech raises serious First Amendment concerns, and school officials should proceed cautiously before venturing into this territory,” wrote Justice Samuel Alito in a concurring opinion that was joined by Justice Neil Gorsuch.
The lone dissenting opinion came from conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote that schools “historically could discipline students in circumstances like those presented here.”
As for his interpretation of the majority decision, Thomas wrote: “Courts (and schools) will almost certainly be at a loss as to what exactly the Court’s opinion today means.”
After a years-long court battle, Levy expressed relief that the ordeal is finally settled in her favor.
“I just feel like the school went way too far with what they did, and they definitely shouldn’t have,” she said. “I’m glad the Supreme Court agreed with me with that.”