Unlikely Allies from Across the Political Spectrum Urge Supreme Court to Uphold Students’ Free Speech Rights

April 1, 2021 11:00 am

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NEW YORK — More than 100 organizations, more than 250 individuals, and nine Republican state attorneys general filed briefs yesterday urging the Supreme Court to protect young people’s First Amendment’s rights in the most important student free speech case in decades. The briefs were filed by some of the most conservative and liberal organizations in the country, and included student activists, school administrators, conservative public interest and religious rights organizations, civil rights groups, a national teachers’ union, law and education professors, and social scientists.

The briefs were filed in Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., in which a school suspended B.L., a high school freshman, from her cheerleading team for posting a message saying “Fuck school fuck cheer fuck softball fuck everything” on her personal Snapchat while out of school on the weekend. The ACLU and the ACLU of Pennsylvania represent B.L. The case asks what free speech rights public school students should have outside school, and the Supreme Court’s decision will define the scope of young people’s free speech rights 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

The groups, individuals, and states filed 24 separate friend-of-the-court (amicus) briefs in support of the ACLU’s argument that the Supreme Court should not give school officials the same authority they have in school to censor students’ speech outside of school contexts, because this would be a dangerous restriction on young people’s free speech rights.

“Empowering public school officials to censor what students say when they are outside of school would be an epic restriction of young people’s freedom of expression,” said Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “It would impact not only harmless outbursts like B.L.’s, but would threaten young people’s right to speak about important political, religious, and cultural matters, which is exactly the wrong lesson to teach young people.”

The diverse individuals and groups who filed 24 briefs in support of the ACLU’s client B.L. include:

  • Mary Beth and John Tinker, who won the landmark 1969 “black armband” case, Tinker v. Des Moines, which established that “students do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
  • Nine Republican-led states — Louisiana, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Texas, and Utah.
  • Student activists groups, including Houston Independent School District Student Congress, Kentucky Student Voice Team, March For Our Lives Action Fund, Students For a Sensible Drug Policy, and Student Voice.
  • Parents Defending Education, a conservative parents’ rights organization.
  • National Women’s Law Center, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, Lambda Legal Defense Fund, and more than 30 other civil rights groups.
  • The Liberty Justice Center and the Firearms Policy Coalition.
  • Former teachers, school administrators, and the National Council of Teachers of English.
  • The Student Press Law Center and other journalism education organizations.
  • The Juvenile Law Center, Advancement Project, and other juvenile justice organizations.
  • The National College Players Association and the College Athlete Advocacy Initiative.
  • Alliance Defending Freedom, Christian Legal Society, First Liberty Institute, and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
  • The Electronic Frontier Foundation and Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
  • Cato Institute, Pacific Legal Foundation, Americans for Prosperity Foundation, and Rutherford Institute.

“You won’t find another case in the past decade with such a diverse range of groups on the same side,” said David Cole, ACLU national legal director. “We have support from the right to the left, from students to administrators, from civil rights groups, religious liberty organizations, and red states. That’s because young people’s freedom of speech isn’t a conservative issue, a liberal issue, a Democratic issue, or a Republican issue. It’s an American issue that affects all of us.”

The Supreme Court will hear arguments in this case on April 28, 2021.

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