Supreme Court Rules to Protect Students’ Full Free Speech Rights

June 23, 2021 11:15 am

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Mahanoy Area School District v B.L. today in a decision that reaffirmed the importance of free speech rights of young people and students across the country. The court ruled that school authorities must respect students' rights to express themselves outside of school, including their right to express dissenting or unpopular views. The court recognized that schools do not have the same authority to punish students for speech outside of school as they do in school contexts. The court also recognized that parents, not schools, exercise primary responsibility for their children’s speech.

The court wrote: “[T]he school itself has an interest in protecting a student’s unpopular expression, especially when the expression takes place off campus. America’s public schools are the nurseries of democracy.”

The court affirmed that the student speech at issue was protected by the First Amendment. The case involved Brandi Levy, who was removed from the junior varisty cheerleading team at Mahanoy Area High School in 2017 after she posted a “snap” on Snapchat with a photo of her and a friend with their middle fingers extended accompanied by the text “fuck school fuck softball fuck cheer fuck everything.” The snap was created and posted on a Saturday while the two friends were at a local convenience store. The school district in this case was asking the court to grant the same authority schools currently have to curb and punish speech within school buildings to students’ off-campus speech.

In its ruling, the court affirmed that the student’s snap was protected speech under the First Amendment, as it was posted off of school grounds and not at a school-related activity, and the school violated the First Amendment by punishing her for her speech.

“Protecting young people’s free speech rights when they are outside of school is vital, and this is a huge victory for the free speech rights of millions of students who attend our nation’s public schools,” said David Cole, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union. “The school in this case asked the court to allow it to punish speech that it considered ‘disruptive,’ regardless of where it occurs. If the court had accepted that argument, it would have put in peril all manner of young people’s speech, including their expression on politics, school operations, and general teen frustrations. The message from this ruling is clear — free speech is for everyone, and that includes public school students.”

The incident in this case occurred in May 2017, when Brandi Levy was in ninth grade. She graduated in 2020 and is now a freshman in college.

“The school went too far, and I’m glad that the Supreme Court agrees,” said Brandi Levy. “I was frustrated, I was 14 years old, and I expressed my frustration the way teenagers do today. Young people need to have the ability to express themselves without worrying about being punished when they get to school. I never could have imagined that one simple snap would turn into a Supreme Court case, but I’m proud that my family and I advocated for the rights of millions of public school students.”

“When we received the Levys’ complaint, we thought this situation would be resolved quickly and that the school would accept our guidance, but obviously that didn’t happen,” said Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “I am proud of our team at the ACLU, who effectively argued before three courts that public school students should not be monitored 24-7 by school officials. I am especially proud of Brandi and her family, who stood up for one of the most fundamental rights that we cherish in this country, the right to speak freely without government interference.”

“In this ruling, the Supreme Court has affirmed what we’ve said all along — students have greater free speech rights out of school and on their own time,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “The school district asked for vast powers to monitor and punish students’ speech at all times, no matter where or when it occurs. We are grateful that the court understood how dangerous that argument was and rejected it.”

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