SCOTUS Rules 8-1 School Wrong to Punish Cheerleader for Profane Snapchat She Took Off School Grounds
The Court ruled the school violated Brandi Levy’s First Amendment rights with a narrow decision.
The Supreme Court ruled 8-1, though narrow, that Mahanoy Area High School violated Brandi Levy’s First Amendment rights when it kicked her off the junior varsity cheerleading squad after she made a profane rant on Snapchat off of school grounds.
Justice Clarence Thomas is the only one who dissented.
“While public schools may have a special interest in regulating some off-campus student speech, the special interests offered by the school are not sufficient to overcome B. L.’s interest in free expression in this case,” wrote the Court.
The Court provided five points proving the school violated Levy’s rights:
- Levy aimed criticism at a community in which she belongs.
- Levy made the comments outside of school hours, away from the school, and never mentioned the school. She also did target anyone at the school. She used her personal device to film the Snapchat and only shared it with a private group of friends.
- The school’s argument that it has an obligation to teach manners and punish vulgar language does not apply because Levy made the Snapchat off school grounds.
- The school’s argument that their action prevented disruption does not work since the incident “took, at most, 5 to 10 minutes of an Algebra class ‘for just a couple of days'” and it upset a few cheerleaders.
- The court did not find much “to suggest a substantial interference in, or disruption of, the school’s efforts to maintain cohesion on the school cheerleading squad.”
Despite having five points, the Court made its decision narrow. The Court says “schools have a special interest in regulating off-campus student speech that ‘materially disrupts classwork or involves substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others.'”
“The special characteristics that give schools additional license to regulate student speech do not always disappear when that speech takes place off campus,” the Court explained. “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.”
So the ruling does not deny schools the ability to regulate off-campus speech.
Thomas wrote in his dissent: “Assuming that B. L.’s speech occurred off campus, the purpose and effect of B. L.’s speech was ‘to degrade the [program and cheerleading staff]’ in front of ‘other pupils,’ thus having ‘a direct and immediate tendency to . . . subvert the [cheerleading coach’s] authority.”'”
Thomas concluded the coach had valid reasons to punish Levy.
Thomas pointed out this case differs from other cases because it “involves speech made in one location but capable of being received in countless others-an issue that has been aggravated exponentially by recent technological advances.” So since the technology can reach more people it can cause more harm to “the school environment than will an off-campus in-person conversation.”
However, I have to correct Thomas. On Snapchat, only people you approve can follow you and view your snaps. Celebrities, news outlets, sports teams, and others like those have public accounts. So no one would know about Levy’s Snapchat video if no one told on her. (If I am wrong please correct me.)
This is an interesting point: Levy being a cheerleader is more significant than if a non-cheerleader made the remarks:
First, the majority gives little apparent significance to B. L.’s decision to participate in an extracurricular activity. But the historical test suggests that authority of schools over off-campus speech may be greater when students participate in extracurricular programs. The Lander test focuses on the effect of speech, not its location. So students like B. L. who are active in extracurricular programs have a greater potential, by virtue of their participation, to harm those programs. For example, a profanity-laced screed delivered on social media or at the mall has a much different effect on a football program when done by a regular student than when done by the captain of the football team. So, too, here.
Thomas also has a problem with the majority assuming Levy made her comments off-campus. He acknowledged “it makes sense to treat B.L’s speech as off-campus speech” since they have “little evidence” it happened on-campus.
The coach viewed a copy of Levy’s snap, not the original, “created by another student.”
“But, the majority mentions none of this,” wrote Thomas. “It simply, and uncritically, assumes that B. L.’s speech was off campus. Because it creates a test untethered from history, it bypasses this relevant inquiry.”DONATE
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