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Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Dismissed Cheerleader Re: Free Speech

June 23, 2021

On June 23, 2021, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) ruled 8 to 1 in favor of a student’s right to free speech when she produced a profane Snapchat posting in response to her not being selected to her high school’s varsity cheerleading squad. The student was off campus when she produced the post; she did not name the school, nor did she mention any students or faculty by name and direct any profanity to any individual or threats to any individual or group. SCOTUS also determined that the post did not disrupt the school.

From the “Syllabus” (an intro of sorts with page numbers referencing sections in the full, 42-page opinion) of the Mahoney Area School District vs. B.L. ruling:

Mahanoy Area High School (PA) student B. L. failed to make the school’s varsity cheerleading squad. While visiting a local convenience store over the weekend, B. L. posted two images on Snapchat, a social media application for smartphones that allows users to share temporary images with selected friends. B. L.’s posts expressed frustration with the school and the school’s cheerleading squad, and one contained vulgar language and gestures. When school officials learned of the posts, they suspended B. L. from the junior varsity cheerleading squad for the upcoming year. After unsuccessfully seeking to reverse that punishment, B. L. and her parents sought relief in federal court, arguing inter alia that punishing B. L. for her speech violated the First Amendment. The District Court granted an injunction ordering the school to reinstate B. L. to the cheerleading team. Relying on Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School Dist., 393 U. S. 503, to grant B. L.’s subsequent motion for summary judgment, 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 the panel majority reasoned that Tinker did not apply because schools had no special license to regulate student speech occurring off campus.

Held: 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. Pp.4-11.

(a) In Tinker, we indicated that schools have a special interest inregulating on-campus student speech that “materially disrupts classwork or involves substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others.” 393 U. S., at 513. 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. Pp. 4-6.

(b) But three features of off-campus speech often, even if not always, distinguish schools’ efforts to regulate off-campus speech. First, a school will rarely stand in loco parentis when a student speaks off campus. Second, from the student speaker’s perspective, regulations of offcampus 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. Third, 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. Taken together, these three features of much off-campus speech mean that the leeway the First Amendment grants to schools in light of their special characteristics is diminished. Pp. 6-8.

(c) The school violated B. L.’s First Amendment rights when it suspended her from the junior varsity cheerleading squad.

(1) B. L.’s posts are entitled to First Amendment protection. The statements made in B. L.’s Snapchats reflect criticism of the rules of a community of which B. L. forms a part. And B. L.’s message did not involve features that would place it outside the First Amendment’s ordinary protection. Pp. 8–9.

(2) 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 cellphone, to an audience consisting of her private circle of Snapchat friends. P. 9.

(3) 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. B. L. spoke under circumstances where the school did not stand in loco parentis. And the vulgarity in B. L.’s posts encompassed a message of criticism. In addition, the school has presented no evidence of any general effort to prevent
students from using vulgarity outside the classroom. Pp. 9–10.

(4) The school’s interest in preventing disruption is not supported by the record, which shows that discussion of the matter took, at most, 5 to 10 minutes of an Algebra class “for just a couple of days” and that some members of the cheerleading team were “upset” about the content of B. L.’s Snapchats. App. 82–83. This alone does not satisfy Tinker’s demanding standards. Pp. 10–11.

(5) Likewise, there is little to suggest a substantial interference in, or disruption of, the school’s efforts to maintain cohesion on the school cheerleading squad. P. 11.

BREYER, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and ALITO, SOTOMAYOR, KAGAN, GORSUCH, KAVANAUGH and BARRETT, JJ., joined. ALITO, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which GORSUCH, J., joined.
THOMAS, J., filed a dissenting opinion.

“America’s public schools are the nurseries for democracy.”

My favorite line.

In this post, I offer only the summation of the Mahoney Area School District vs. B.L. opinion. Teachers, administrators, and other school officials would do well to read the entire ruling.


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  1. Of course Thomas filed a dissenting opinion.

  2. DanG permalink

    I am glad that SCOTUS ruled rightly in this case, notwithstanding the fact that a cheerleader squabble had to take up the time of the highest court in the land. Live and let live is an exotic, alien concept these days. Authoritarian knee-jerk reactions such as this should be squashed much sooner at the building level.

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