Supreme Court Expands Student Speech Rights
Public school violated First Amendment when it punished a student for using vulgar words and gestures on social media
In 2017, a public high school student (known as B.L.) didn’t make the varsity cheerleading team. B.L. also failed to get her first-choice position on a private softball team and had finals looming over her. While at an off-campus convenience store on a Saturday afternoon, she took her frustration to social media and posted a Snapchat photo of herself and a friend, holding up their middle fingers with the caption, “F*** school f*** softball f*** cheer f*** everything.”
The Snapchat post lasted for 24 hours and was viewable only to 250 friends. One viewer took a picture of the post and it was shared with the cheerleading coach. The school suspended B.L. from cheerleading for a year, claiming team and school rules were violated. B.L. appealed her suspension and finally brought her case to court. The Supreme Court ruled the public school violated B.L.’s First Amendment rights when it punished her for using vulgar words and gestures in her social media speech – BUT it said that school districts can still censor students’ for off-campus speech in some circumstances. Those circumstance include when speech materially and substantially disrupts the learning environment of the school, and in cases of severe bullying and harassment, threats, and cheating.
The Court discussed three factors that schools should consider whether to punish off-campus speech. First, schools are not usually responsible to supervise students while off-campus. That responsibility is left to the parents of the student. Second, off-campus speech includes anything expressed outside of school property, which means allowing schools to regulate off-campus speech would give schools the unreasonable power to regulate what a student says 24/7. In a situation like this, a school would have to overcome a heavy burden to justify the regulation of political and religious off-campus speech, since the two are highly protected. Third, schools have the responsibility to protect unpopular ideas that a student may express because the free exchange of ideas influences public policy.
Click HERE to read the full Supreme Court Opinion