Supreme Court rules for cheerleader in free speech case

Teaching good manners does not outweigh free expression of off-campus speech

(Creative Commons graphic)

By Clarion News

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday handed public school students a landmark First Amendment victory, ruling 8-1 that off-campus speech is a protected form of expression.

In 2017, freshman cheerleader Brandi Levy became upset when she was denied a spot on the 2018 varsity squad. On a Saturday afternoon, Levy and a friend sent a expletive-laced Snapchat photo (complete with their middle fingers raised) from a local coffee shop. “F*ck school, f*ck softball, f*ck cheerleading, f*ck everything,” said the Snap, which landed in the inbox of 250 friends and ultimately shared with a cheerleading coach. Levy was handed a one-year suspension from cheerleading because she violated stated conduct rules. She was not suspended from school.

The Mahanoy City, Penn. student sued the school district, arguing that her off-campus speech is not subject to the district’s oversight. Levy won in two lower courts, with both opinions noting that the Supreme Court has never extended the reach of a public school beyond its border. In an earlier landmark case – Tinker v. Des Moines (1969) – the Court held that students keep their First Amendment rights while on campus, unless the speech is substantially disruptive. In the current case, the speech occurred away from school property.

“Teaching good manners does not outweigh free expression,” said Justice Stephen Breyer, one of eight justices voting in favor of student free speech. He noted the Snap might have been vulgar, but the poor choice of wording did not diminish Levy’s right to say what she was feeling.

Levy has acknowledged the immature choice of words, while also noting she was away from campus and was not directing threats at anyone. In fact, her Snap disappeared in 24 hours (as all Snaps do) and nobody complained of the school or cheerleading program being substantially disrupted.

The Court noted that schools cannot become parents by governing off-campus behavior. Public schools, the Court said, may extend a reach beyond campus when the speech involves bullying or cheating.

Justice Clarence Thomas was the lone dissent, noting that the cheerleader was subverting school authority, regardless of where the Snap originated. During arguments made to the Court, Justice Brett Kavanaugh noted that the cheerleader’s actions were eroding the importance of team solidarity. But, he said, the fact she was away from campus insulates her from the reach of the school district.

An article about the case here.

About The Clarion News

Campus and community news produced by journalism students at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo.
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