U.S. Supreme Court confounds educators with First Amendment ruling in favor of student
It has been 50 years since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a high school student in a free-speech case. That changed this week as the Court ruled 8-1 in favor of Brandi Levy (a Pennsylvania high school student) in her First Amendment lawsuit against the Mahanoy Area School District. After a half century of ruling against students in various lawsuits, the Court was misguided in choosing this case to make a statement.
Ms. Levy was a high school freshman when she failed to be selected to her school’s varsity cheerleading team. According to the lawsuit, “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 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.”
The Supreme Court ultimately sided with the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, in Philadelphia, that the “school district had violated the First Amendment by punishing a student for a vulgar social media message sent while she was not on school grounds.”
Pretty straight forward, correct? Or is it?
The court did a disservice to educational institutions everywhere and has left kids and families in limbo as to what is and isn’t permitted. Here is what is important for every parent and child to understand:
Justice Breyer, writing for the majority, stated that “we do not believe the special characteristics that give schools additional license to regulate student speech always disappear when a school regulates speech that takes place off campus. The school’s regulatory interests remain significant in some off-campus circumstances.”
“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, including material maintained within school computers.”
So what does that mean? It means students have First Amendment protections for social media messages off school grounds, but NOT if those messages fall into the alphabet soup of categories Justice Breyer listed? If the Court’s intention was to confuse the educational system, then they accomplished it. The Court has essentially mandated educators to walk a tightrope when monitoring social media messages. And what about social media messages of self-harm or even suicide using school devices but sent from home?
Justice Clarence Thomas said in his dissenting opinion, “But the Court’s foundation is untethered from anything stable, and courts (and schools) will almost certainly be at a loss as to what exactly the Court’s opinion today means.”
Couldn’t have said it any better myself.