By Will Sites
A clash between technology and the free-speech rights of public school students will take place Wednesday in the nation’s highest court. The case involves the discipline of a high school cheerleader after she posted an expletive-filled Snapchat aimed at her school and coaches. The post originated on a Saturday, off-campus, while she was not engaged in a school activity.
The case is Mahanoy Area School District (Penn.) v. B.L. The initials stand for Brandi Levy, who was 15 when the lawsuit was filed – court citations use initials for minors. Levy is now in college. Here’s what happened:
The Mahanoy High School (Penn.) freshman was spending a Saturday with a friend when she decided to send a Snapchat photo of the two flipping-off the camera, along with several f-bombs aimed at cheerleading, softball, and generally the school. The post was not sent to any administrators, teachers, or coaches. However, it was shown to a cheerleader coach, who ultimately suspended Levy because the student violated written conduct policy. Levy filed a lawsuit, stating her First Amendment rights were violated because the speech took place away from campus and did not disrupt the school environment.
The question in Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. is: Does a public school violate a student’s First Amendment right to free speech when the speech takes place off-campus and it does not significantly disrupt the school? The issue was previously settled in the 1969 landmark Supreme Court case, Tinker v. Des Moines.
In Tinker, two students entered a public high school wearing anti-Vietnam War black armbands. They were suspended after refusing to take them off. The Supreme Court took the case, ruling that schools must protect the First Amendment rights of students, but only if the student speech does not disrupt the school environment. Because nobody complained about the armbands and there was no disruption, the armbands were protected speech. But things have changed.
Because technology allows for speech to originate away from campus – while simultaneously being delivered to campus – the reach of school discipline may be settled after Wednesday’s arguments. The Supreme Court has ruled on several public school speech cases, but this is the first one involving speech via digital devices. Generally, speech is protected when it doesn’t disrupt the school and/or the speech takes place away from campus and campus activities. How much the speech disrupts the school environment seems to be the key factor. Two types of speech – political and religious – have the highest protection.
(Will Sites is an associate professor of journalism at Lincoln University)