We need more clarity on school authority over social media, but Mahanoy vs. B.L. moves us in the right direction.
When Pennsylvania student Brandi Levy failed to make her high school’s varsity cheerleading team in 2017, she reacted with typical teenage melodrama. She cursed school, she cursed cheer, and she raised her middle finger for good measure.
She did this on a Saturday at a convenience store, and she posted the rant to Snapchat, where her friends would see it for a fleeting moment before the post disappeared.
Except her post didn’t go away. The middle finger, the words and even the emoji made it all the way to the Supreme Court, immortalized in a ruling that wisely sided with the cheerleader in a case with ramifications for public schools across America. The high court said last week that Levy’s school violated her First Amendment rights by booting her from the junior varsity cheerleading team over the Snapchat post.
There is nothing to admire about Levy’s profane diatribe. Her speech is far from the dignified political expression of students in 1965 who wore black armbands to school in protest of the Vietnam War and were suspended — punishment that the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional in the landmark Tinker vs. Des Moines case.
Still, Levy did not name the school or coaches. Her rant did not spiral into personal attacks or threats that could seriously harm other people at her school. Anyone who parents a teen — heck, anyone who’s had a bad day — knows that frustration can overpower good manners. While schools must regulate profanity on campus to avoid disruption, it’s unreasonable for school officials to police kids’ vulgar complaints about school life 24/7. As the Supreme Court noted: “Geographically speaking, off-campus speech will normally fall within the zone of parental, rather than school-related, responsibility.”
We appreciate the Supreme Court’s restraint. While it found that the Mahanoy Area High School District erred in removing Levy from her team, the justices recognized that schools have “significant” interests in regulating some off-campus behavior, such as severe bullying and harassment, threats and the writing of papers.
Unfortunately, the Supreme Court declined to specify what all counts as “off-campus speech” and how the First Amendment would apply, but at the very least it walked back the extreme ruling of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. Although that court also sided with the cheerleader, it dangerously declared that the standard set in the Tinker case — that schools can suppress speech if it materially or substantially interferes with school operations — does not apply to off-campus speech. Appeals courts don’t set national legal precedent, but their decisions can influence other courts weighing similar cases.
Beyond Tinker, the Supreme Court has given schools permission to regulate certain student expression: indecent or lewd speech on school grounds, speech at school events that promotes illegal drug use and speech in school-sponsored newspapers. However, social media remains a minefield for schools sorting out how much authority they have over student expression.
We wish the Supreme Court had offered more clarity, but we’re grateful for the sensible logic that it applied to Levy’s circumstances. We hope it’ll make schools think twice about censoring student criticism.
Yes, in some cases, even the foul utterances of a teen deserve the sacred protection of our First Amendment. We borrow the words of Justice Stephen Breyer: “…sometimes it is necessary to protect the superfluous in order to preserve the necessary.”
— THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS