Supreme Court of The United States: The Court by an overwhelming majority of 8:1 held that a student’s suspension from school’s cheerleading squad because of her off-campus Snapchat posts expressing her frustration with the school, violates such student’s Freedom of Speech and Expression as enshrined within the First Amendment. The Court observed that while public schools may have a special interest in regulating some off-campus student speech, the special interests offered by the Mahanoy Area High School are not sufficient to overcome B.L.’s interest in free expression in this case. The majority consisted of John Roberts, CJ., Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Amy Coney Barret, Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch, JJ.
Background and Legal Trajectory: B.L., a student of Pennsylvania’s Mahanoy Area High School, at the end of her freshman year, tried out for a position on a private softball team. She did not make it to the varsity cheerleading team or get her preferred softball position, but she was offered a spot on the cheerleading squad’s junior varsity team. She did not accept the coach’s decision with good grace, particularly because the squad coaches had placed an entering freshman on the varsity team. While visiting a local convenience store over the weekend, B.L. posted two images on Snapchat, (a social media application for smart phones that allows users to share temporary images with selected friends) expressing frustration with the school and the school’s cheerleading squad. One of the posts contained vulgar language and gestures.
The first image B. L. posted showed her and a friend with middle fingers raised bearing the caption: “F–k school f–k softball f–k cheer f–k everything.” The second image was blank but for a caption, which read: “Love how me and [another student] get told we need a year of jv before we make varsity but that doesn’t matter to anyone else?”
When school officials learned of the posts, they suspended B.L. from the junior varsity cheerleading squad for the upcoming year.
B.L. contended that the school authorities by suspending her for the Snapchat posts have violated her right of free speech as protected by the First Amendment. B.L.’s parents made unsuccessful attempts to reverse the school’s decision, therefore approaching the courts. The District Court granted an injunction ordering the school to reinstate B.L. to the cheerleading team. The District Court found that B.L.’s punishment violated the First Amendment because her Snapchat posts had not caused substantial disruption at the school. The Third Circuit affirmed the judgment, but reasoned that schools had no special license to regulate student speech occurring off-campus.
Observations: The Judges observed that in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School Dist., 393 U. S. 503, the Court had stated that schools have a special interest in regulating on-campus student speech that “materially disrupts class work or involves substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others”, however, the special characteristics that give schools additional license to regulate student speech do not always disappear when that speech takes place off-campus. Circumstances that may implicate a school’s regulatory interests include serious or severe bullying or harassment targeting particular individuals; threats aimed at teachers or other students; the failure to follow rules concerning lessons, the writing of papers, the use of computers, or participation in other online school activities; and breaches of school security devices.
Vis-à-vis off-campus speech, the Court observed that-
- A school will rarely stand in loco parentis when a student speaks off campus;
- From the student speaker’s perspective, regulations of off-campus speech when coupled with regulations of on-campus speech, include all the speech a student utters during the full 24-hour day, that means courts must be more skeptical of a school’s efforts to regulate off-campus speech, for doing so may mean the student cannot engage in that kind of speech at all.
- The school itself has an interest in protecting a student’s unpopular expression, especially when the expression takes place off-campus, because America’s public schools are the nurseries of democracy.
If all the aforementioned features are read together then these mean that the leeway the First Amendment grants to schools in light of their special characteristics is diminished.
The Majority concluded that the school violated B.L.’s First Amendment rights when it suspended her from the junior varsity cheerleading squad. B.L.’s Snapchat posts are entitled to First Amendment protection- for they reflect criticism of the rules of a community of which B.L. forms a part; B.L.’s message did not involve features that would place it outside the First Amendment’s ordinary protection.
The circumstances of B.L.’s speech diminish the school’s interest in regulation. B.L.’s posts appeared outside of school hours from a location outside the school. She did not identify the school in her posts or target any member of the school community with vulgar or abusive language. B.L. also transmitted her speech through a personal mobile phone to an audience consisting of her private circle of Snap-chat friends. “The school’s interest in teaching good manners and consequently in punishing the use of vulgar language aimed at part of the school community is weakened considerably by the fact that B.L. spoke outside the school on her own time and she spoke under circumstances where the school did not stand in loco parentis. The vulgarity in the B.L.’s posts encompassed a message of criticism”.
Dissenting Opinion- Justice Clarence Thomas was the sole dissenter. He observed that the Majority took a common law approach to decide the matter and criticised the Court’s lack of clarity in identifying the principles in the case. “In effect, it states just one rule: Schools can regulate speech less often when that speech occurs off campus. It then identifies this case as an “example” and “leaves for future cases” the job of developing this new common-law doctrine. But the Court’s foundation is untethered from anything stable, and courts (and schools) will almost certainly be at a loss as to what exactly the Court’s opinion today means”.
[Mahanoy Area High School v. B.L. (a minor through her father Lawrence Levy), No. 20-255, decided on 23-06-2021]
Sucheta Sarkar, Editorial Assistant has reported this brief.