This is a follow up to: Supreme Court to be Asked to Consider First Amendment Case of Vulgar Cheerleader
But in an 8-1 vote, the court also declared that school administrators do have the power to punish student speech that occurs online or off campus if it genuinely disrupts classroom study. But the justices concluded that a few swearwords posted online off school grounds, as in this case, did not rise to the definition of disruptive.
At issue in the case was a series of F-bombs issued in 2017 on Snapchat by Brandi Levy, then a 14-year-old cheerleader who failed to win a promotion from the junior varsity to the varsity cheerleading team at her Pennsylvania school.
“I was really upset and frustrated at everything,” she said in an interview with NPR in April. So she posted a photo of herself and a friend flipping the bird to the camera, along with a message that said, “F*** the school. … F*** cheer, F*** everything.”
When the post came to the school’s attention, Levy was suspended from the junior varsity team. Levy’s parents appealed the school’s decision on her behalf, but the athletic director, school principal, district superintendent, and school board all sided with the Mahanoy Area School District in Pennsylvania. Levy’s parents then filed a First Amendment lawsuit, and they won both in district court and at the Third Circuit.
“A public high school student used, and transmitted to her Snapchat friends, vulgar language and gestures criticizing both the school and the school’s cheerleading team. The student’s speech took place outside of school hours and away from the school’s campus. In response, the school suspended the student for a year from the cheerleading team. We must decide whether the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit correctly held that the school’s decision violated the First Amendment,” Justice Stephen Breyer’s majority opinion began. “Although we do not agree with the reasoning of the Third Circuit panel’s majority, we do agree with its conclusion that the school’s disciplinary action violated the First Amendment.”
Justice Clarence Thomas dissented.
“The opinion reaffirms that schools’ authority over the lives of students is not boundless,” said Justin Driver, a law professor at Yale and the author of “The Schoolhouse Gate: Public Education, the Supreme Court and the Battle for the American Mind.”
But he added that the nuanced ruling, which raised as many questions as it answered, “offers little in the way of clarity to students, educators or lower-court judges.”