Supreme Court rules in favor of students, First Amendment rights

U.S. Supreme Court Building
via Wikimedia.org

The First Amendment prevailed in yet another attempt of governmental overreach.

On June 23, the Supreme Court found in favor of the free speech rights of high school students and drawing a line for how far public school administrators can reach off campus and punish the speech of students.

The case stemmed from a 2017 incident where 14-year-old Brandi Levy — a freshman at Mahanoy Area High School in Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania — posted a profanity-laced image on her Snapchat story as her response to not getting onto the varsity cheerleading squad or getting her preferred position on a private softball team. 

This was done while Levy was at a convenience store off campus and outside of school hours, and she never mentioned the school by name.

One of Levy’s Snapchat connections took a screenshot of the post, and the cheerleading coach eventually caught wind of it. This lead to the school administration punishing Levy by banning her from cheerleading for a year. Levy and her parents sued the school with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, arguing that the punishment violated her First Amendment rights. 

Obviously, it went all the way to the highest court in the land, and in an 8-1 ruling, Levy came away the victor.

In this case, the school tried to use the standard created in the 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District case. Tinker dealt with students wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War, and the court found in favor of the students. 

The ruling said school officials must be able to prove student speech would substantially disrupt learning in order for said speech to be suppressed. 

Furthermore, the Tinker ruling also made clear that students do not shed their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse gate. 

In Levy’s case, the speech did not even occur on the school grounds or as part of a school-sponsored activity, and the Snapchat story did not cause a disruption to the learning environment. 

Levy’s successful defense of her rights is important. Students’ First Amendment rights should be protected, whether in terms of protests, expressions, student media, or via any other means or platform. School administrators should not overreach and try to control everything.

“Protecting young people’s free speech rights when they are outside of school is vital, and this is a huge victory for the free speech rights of millions of students who attend our nation’s public schools,” ACLU legal director David Cole said in a press release. “The school in this case asked the court to allow it to punish speech that it considered ‘disruptive,’ regardless of where it occurs. If the court had accepted that argument, it would have put in peril all manner of young people’s speech, including their expression on politics, school operations, and general teen frustrations. The message from this ruling is clear — free speech is for everyone, and that includes public school students.”

This ruling doesn’t give blanket protection to students, though.

“We do not now set forth a broad, highly general First Amendment rule stating just what counts as ‘off campus’ speech and whether or how ordinary First Amendment standards must give way off campus to a school’s special need to prevent [. . .] substantial disruption of learning-related activities or the protection of those who make up a school community,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the majority.

I wish the justices had gone further. I wish they had provided more sweeping protections for the words and actions of students. Students need to enjoy the same protections adults do. They need to be able to exercise their rights and develop into productive members of society.

And they shouldn’t live in a surveillance state where the school principal is always watching their every move. 

According to the New York Times reporter Adam Liptak, “Justice Breyer said three factors should make courts wary of allowing schools to supervise what students say off campus: Parents rather than administrators are better suited to disciplining children away from school, the specter of round-the-clock surveillance is at odds with free speech values, and schools should teach students that unpopular speech is worthy of protection.”

That’s helpful, but I fear it leaves the door open a crack. It allows for the rights of students to be trampled again. 

Therefore, I urge more schools to enact policies that protect students. Such policies exist when it comes to student media. In fact, there are state laws. Kansas has such a law in the Kansas Student Publications Act. The same should exist for other forms of expression and rights outlined in the First Amendment. 

Until such policies or even laws are put into place, we should celebrate the current victory for student rights, but we must stay on guard and ready to stand up against the next injustice. 

Read More About the Case:

Mahanoy Area School Dist. v. B. L. (06/23/2021)

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Todd Vogts is a native of Canton, a resident of McPherson County, and an assistant professor of media at Sterling College. He can be contacted with questions or comments via his website at www.toddvogts.com.

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My name is Todd Vogts. I am an assistant professor of media. I like the color green, riding my motorcycle, and being with my family and friends. A good book is a perfect companion for me any time, and I'm a published author and journalist. Visit my website at www.toddvogts.com and follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/toddvogts.