The Supreme Court could soon see one of the more interesting free speech cases involving a high school student, her school’s cheerleading team coach, and her school district. Law and Crime suggested that the case could change free speech protections and school district’s abilities to censor for decades to come.
In 2017, a high school freshman (known as “B.L.” in court documents) flipped off her school and entered profanities on the social media platform Snapchat, which were then leaked from one of her teammates to the team’s coach. The coach removed the disgruntled student from the junior varsity cheerleading team on the grounds that her social media rant violated team and school rules. The rules stated that athletes must “have respect for [their] school, coaches, . . . [and] other cheerleaders”; avoid “foul language and inappropriate gestures”; and refrain from sharing “negative information regarding cheerleading, cheerleaders, or coaches . . . on the internet.”
Although the student allegedly knew of these team and school rules when joining the team, the student’s parents appealed the decision. However, their appeal was denied by the school’s athletic director, principal, district superintendent, and school board in the eastern Pennsylvania Mahanoy Area School District. It did not stop her parents from filing a First Amendment lawsuit, which they won at the district court and circuit court levels.
The crux of the lawsuit is what constitutes “in school” and “at home” speech, and also how social media plays a part in First Amendment-related decisions. Although juvenile students have free speech protections on-campus and off-campus, schools do have a limited right to censor speech in specific circumstances.
The American legal system protects juvenile students’ right to free speech, as the 1969 case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District demonstrated. In that case, students protested the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands, which the school district did not approve of. But the Supreme Court sided with the students by a 7-2 vote. In legal circles, it is known as the “Tinker Test.”
In the case of the Mahanoy School District v. B.L., the Third Circuit Court ruled that the student’s actions were protected under the First Amendment because she did not post the social media rant on school grounds or when she was participating in cheerleading activities. The court did not find the student’s comments to be an act of bullying or endangering the safety of others. The school district appealed to the Supreme Court on the grounds that the Third Circuit’s decision would strip school districts of the power to keep their students safe.