ACLU Urges U.S. Supreme Court to Protect Students’ First Amendment Rights When They’re Out of School
WASHINGTON — In a case from Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, an attorney from the American Civil Liberties Union argued before the U.S. Supreme Court today that public school students should have the right to freely express themselves when they are off campus and away from school activities. The case involves a teenager who was removed from the junior varsity cheerleading team at Mahanoy Area High School in 2017 after she posted a “snap” on the messaging app Snapchat with a photo of her and a friend with their middle fingers extended and text that read “fuck school fuck softball fuck cheer fuck everything” superimposed over the photo. The snap was created and posted on a Saturday while the two friends were at a local convenience store.
Arguments on behalf of the student were given today by David Cole, legal director of the national ACLU. Represented by the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the student won four previous federal court decisions and was reinstated to the cheerleading team while the case was pending.
“The school district in this case is asking the court for the ability to punish a student’s speech wherever they go, at any time of the day or night,” said Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “Public schools cannot be empowered in that way. The district is reaching well beyond its authority, into an area that is best left to parents.”
The incident in this case occurred in May 2017, when the student was in ninth grade. She graduated in 2020 and is now a freshman in college.
“I was 14 years old and was at a point in my life when I was really frustrated with things that were happening around me,” said Brandi Levy, the plaintiff in the case, who is identified as B.L. in court documents because she was a minor at the time. “I want the court to understand that this is how kids today express themselves and that they should be able to do that without worrying about being punished at school.”
Mahanoy Area School District has asked the court to grant the same authority that schools currently have to curb speech within school buildings to students’ off-campus speech.
“At school, kids understandably have reduced free speech rights,” said David Cole, legal director of the ACLU. “But outside school, they should have the same free speech rights that everyone else has. If the school prevails here, young people will have nowhere they can speak freely without fear that a school official will punish them.”
The case has drawn a wide array of friend-of-the-court briefs. The organizations siding with Levy include March for Our Lives, Alliance Defending Freedom, Americans for Prosperity, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Advancement Project. A brief has also been filed by Mary Beth and John Tinker, the siblings who were plaintiffs in the Supreme Court’s landmark case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District.
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The American Civil Liberties Union is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States of America.