The U.S. Supreme Court last week heard arguments in a case that may establish important law on the free-speech rights of public high school students nationwide.
The case originated in the Mahanoy Area School District in Schuylkill County, just about 40 miles from here. The details may seem trivial at first glance, but they are not.
To summarize, Brandi Levy, 14 at the time and a cheerleader, reacted angrily when she didn’t make the varsity cheer squad. On the Snapchat social media site, she wrote, “F school, f softball, f cheer, f everything” — spelling out the “F” expletive throughout. There was also a photo included in which she and a classmate raised their middle fingers.
Clearly not the kind of language or approach we hope our kids will use, but it was by far not the worst thing to be found on social media.
Snapchat postings are supposed to disappear in 24 hours. But apparently, another student screen-captured it all and shared it. It got to the attention of the coaches and Levy was suspended from the cheerleading team for a year.
Her parents filed a federal lawsuit and that suspension was later ruled unconstitutional by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court in Philadelphia as a violation of free speech. Now the case has reached the nation’s top court.
Ken Paulson, my former boss at USA TODAY and director of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University, wrote about this case last week and called it the most important student free speech case since 1969.
Paulson wrote: “The free-speech rights of students had largely been determined by the 1969 case Tinker v. Des Moines, in which the Supreme Court held that public high school students could wear black armbands to protest the war in Vietnam. That case firmly established that students were free to speak on school grounds unless their expression posed a potential and substantial disruption to the operation of the school.”
The difference in the current case is that the school was disciplining a student for something she did off of school grounds. That’s why this is a big deal. As Paulson explained, the school district is arguing that off-campus expression posed a substantial threat of disruption to school operations.
If the Court rules in favor of Levy, it will affirm students’ broad speech rights pretty much 24/7. Free speech advocates widely support Levy’s side. I agree with them.
Some have pointed to an issue beyond free speech here — cyberbullying.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Philip Lee, a University of District of Columbia professor who has written about the regulation of cyberbullying, argued that it makes no sense to draw the line on policing student speech at the end of school grounds, because “most cyberbullying content is created off-campus on computers, iPads, all kinds of electronic devices.”
I get that. I am eternally thankful that my wife and I and all four of our now-adult kids grew up without the possibility of painful social media or text message attacks.
But, as Paulson pointed out, “states have harassment laws and there is a better way to deter bullying than subtracting rights from the First Amendment.”
Had there been no profanity in Levy’s tirade, his guess and mine are that there would have been no suspension or legal battle.
Levy, now 18 and a college freshman, got it right when she told the AP last week: “I was a 14-year-old kid. I was upset. I was angry. Everyone, every 14-year-old kid speaks like that at some point.”
In the end, while Levy’s parents filed the lawsuit, it was the school’s overreaction to the profanity that really made this a federal case.
Here’s hoping the Supreme Court understands that.
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