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| | Offensive Speech

The United States Supreme Court is considering a case that will impact the future of free speech rights for every single public school student in the United States.

In 2017, a high school cheerleader (known as B.L.) who didn’t make the varsity team expressed her stress, anger, and frustration on Snapchat. Her choice words: “F*** school f*** softball f*** cheer f*** everything.” B.L. posted a photo of herself and a friend with their middle fingers up and these words as a caption while at a convenience store on a Saturday afternoon. Her Snapchat post was brought to the attention of one of the cheerleading coaches by another student, and B.L. was suspended from cheerleading for the whole year.

After appealing the suspension to the principal, superintendent, and school district, B.L. and her parents brought her case to court. Three lower courts sided with the student, finding the punishment violated her First Amendment free speech rights. Her case has now been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court first established student free speech rights in 1969 in the well-known case of Tinker v. Des Moines. In that case, the Court held that students do not lose their First Amendment rights when they step onto school property. To censor speech, school officials must prove that the student speech would “materially and substantially disrupt” the learning environment of the school.

In the decades after Tinker, the Supreme Court has decided school officials can punish students for using lewd and vulgar language on campus (See Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser), and language that promotes illegal drugs. (See Morse v. Frederick). Lower courts have examined how schools can police student speech that is off campus, including social media postings, but the rules for punishing such speech can vary depending on where you are in the country.

Now, the Supreme Court is taking up the issue in the case Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. and will decide whether rules established in Tinker v. Des Moines extend to off-campus speech. The Court will decide whether B.L.’s school can punish her for a Snapchat that she posted while not at school.