This past June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a school district violated one of its student’s First Amendment right to free speech after it punished the student for an inappropriate and vulgar message she shared on Snapchat. The message was about her frustration with the school.
In an 8-1 ruling, the court decided that while public schools may be able to regulate students’ off-campus speech to some extent, the interests of the school were not severe and sufficient enough to overcome Brandi Levy’s right to free speech and expression.
Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L.
In 2017, 14-year-old Levy wrote a message on Snapchat reading “f*** school,” “f*** cheer,” and “f*** everything.” The message was posted from a convenience store on a Saturday. After returning to school, she was suspended from cheerleading for one year.
Regarding the case, Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote, “It might be tempting to dismiss [Levy’s] words as unworthy of the robust First Amendment protections discussed herein. But sometimes it is necessary to protect the superfluous in order to preserve the necessary.”
Where Does a School’s Authority End?
The case, referred to as Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., was complicated for several reasons, because there are some instances where schools have the right to regulate off-campus speech.
“Unlike the [U.S. Court of Appeals for the] 3rd Circuit, we do not believe the special characteristics that give schools additional license to regulate student speech always disappear when a school regulates speech that takes place off campus,” Breyer said. “The school’s regulatory interests remain significant in some off-campus circumstances.”
Oftentimes, schools still have a right to regulate on and off-campus speech and circumstances, including:
- Serious or severe bullying of a student.
- Threats aimed at the school, a student, or a teacher.
- Writing papers.
- Use of school computers.
- Certain online school activities.
Ultimately, Levy said she is happy with the outcome of the case, saying in a conference call, “The school went too far, and I’m glad that the Supreme Court agrees. I was frustrated, I was 14 years old, and I expressed my frustration the way teenagers do today. Young people need to have the ability to express themselves without worrying about being punished when they get to school. I never could have imagined that one single snap would turn into a Supreme Court case, but I’m proud that my family and I advocated for the rights of millions of students.”
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