In a landmark decision on campus free speech, the Supreme Court today ruled in an 8 to 1 vote in Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. that students' social media speech conducted off campus is protected by the First Amendment.
The case involved a disgruntled cheerleader, B.L. was a student at Mahanoy Area High School in Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania, who tried out for the school’s varsity cheerleading squad.
When she did not make the varsity cheer, she was offered a spot on the cheerleading squad’s junior varsity team.
Justice Stephen Breyer states with considerable restraint:
“B.L. did not accept the coach’s decision with good grace, particularly because the squad coaches had placed an entering freshman on the varsity team.”
B.L. met a friend at the Cocoa Hut, a local convenience store, and used her phone to post two photos on Snapchat.
In the first image, both B. L. and her friend are shown with middle fingers raised with the caption:
“F**k school f**k softball f**k cheer f**k everything.”
In the second image, there is just a caption, which read:
“Love how me and [another student] get told we need a year of jv before we make varsity but tha[t] doesn’t matter to anyone else?”
Critically, she was off campus when posting the Snapchat on a weekend day.
A lower court decided that the school overstepped by kicking B.L. off of the junior varsity squad, but the school district appealed.
Justice Breyer, writing for the majority, noted:
"It might be tempting to dismiss B.L.’s words as unworthy of the robust First Amendment protections discussed herein. But sometimes it is necessary to protect the superfluous in order to preserve the necessary. "
Only Justice Clarence Thomas dissented.
As a result of this decision, schools will no longer be able to retaliate when students voice their opinions off campus, so long as the speech in question is not disruptive to the function of the school.
The "substantial disruption" test was established in Tinker v. Des Moines, which found that students were within their rights to wear arm bands protesting the Vietnam War to school because it did not substantially disrupt the school's operations.
During oral arguments in April, B.L.'s lawyer told the Court that she "was punished for merely expressing frustration with a four-letter word to her friends outside of school on a weekend. Her message may seem trivial, but for young people, the ability to voice their emotions to friends without fear of school censorship may be the most important freedom of all."
Campus Reform has reported on several instances of colleges overstepping their control of student speech on social media. Wesleyan College expelled a student for racist social media posts and then reversed the expulsion when it learned that she didn't make the offensive posts. The University of Tennessee nearly expelled a student for posting Cardi B lyrics on social media.