The U.S. Supreme Court sided with students on Wednesday, ruling that a former cheerleader’s online F-bombs about her school is protected speech under the First Amendment.
By an 8-1 vote, the court declared that school administrators do have the power to punish student speech that occurs online or off campus if it genuinely disrupts classroom study. But the justices concluded that a few swear words posted online from off campus, as in this case, did not rise to the definition of disruptive.
“While public schools may have a special interest in regulating some off-campus student speech, the special interests offered by the school are not sufficient to overcome B. L.’s interest in free expression in this case,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the court’s majority.
At issue in the case was a series of F-bombs issued in 2017 on Snapchat by Brandi Levy, then a 14-year-old high school cheerleader who failed to win a promotion from the junior varsity to the varsity cheerleading term at her Pennsylvania school.
“I was really upset and frustrated at everything,” she said in an interview with NPR in April. So she posted a photo of herself and a friend flipping the bird to the camera, along with a message that said, “F*** the school … F*** cheer, F*** everything.”
Suspended from the team for what was considered disruptive behavior, Brandi and her parents went to court. They argued that the school had no right to punish her for off-campus speech, whether it was posted online while away from school, as in this case, or spoken out loud at a Starbucks across the street from school.
A federal appeals court agreed with her, declaring that school officials have no authority to punish students for speech that occurs in places unconnected to the campus.
The decision marked the first time that an appeals court issued such a broad interpretation of the Supreme Court’s landmark student speech decision more then a half century ago. Back then, in a case involving students suspended for wearing black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War, the court ruled that students do have free speech rights under the Constitution, as long as the speech is not disruptive to the school.
Although Brandi Levy is now in college, the school board in Mahanoy, Pa., appealed to the Supreme Court, contending that disruption can come from outside the campus but still have serious effects on campus. It pointed to laws in 47 states that require schools to enforce anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies.
The high court, however, focused on the facts in Levy’s case, concluding that while her posts were less than admirable, they did not meet the test of being disruptive.
“We do not believe the special characteristics that give schools additional license to regulate student speech always disappear when a school regulates speech that takes place off campus,” Breyer wrote. “The school’s regulatory interests remain significant in some off-campus circumstances.”
In a concurring opinion, Justice Samuel Alito wrote: “If today’s decision teaches any lesson, it must be that the regulation of many types of off-premises student speech raises serious First Amendment concerns, and school officials should proceed cautiously before venturing into this territory.”
In a dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that the school was right to suspend Levy because students like her “who are active in extracurricular programs have a greater potential, by virtue of their participation, to harm those programs.”
“For example, a profanity-laced screed delivered on social media or at the mall has a much different effect on a football program when done by a regular student than when done by the captain of the football team,” Thomas wrote. “So, too, here.”