Cheerleader prevails at U.S. Supreme Court in free speech case

Brandi Levy, a former cheerleader at Mahanoy Area High School in Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania and a key figure in a major U.S. case about free speech, poses in an undated photograph provided by the American Civil Liberties Union

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled in favor of a Pennsylvania teenager who sued after a profanity-laced social media post got her banished from her high school’s cheerleading squad in a closely watched free speech case, but it declined to outright bar public schools from regulating off-campus speech.

The justices ruled 8-1 that the punishment that Mahanoy Area School District officials gave the plaintiff, Brandi Levy, for her social media post – made on Snapchat at a local convenience store in Mahanoy City on a weekend – violated her free speech rights under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. The decision was authored by liberal Justice Stephen Breyer.

The case involved the free speech rights of America’s roughly 50 million public school students in the internet and social media era. Many schools and educators have argued that their ability to curb bullying, threats, cheating and harassment – all frequently occurring online – should not be limited to school grounds.

The justices preserved the authority of public schools to sometimes regulate speech that occurs away from campus. They declined to endorse a lower court decision that found that the First Amendment guarantee of free speech prohibited punishing students for what they say off campus.

“The school’s regulatory interests remain significant in some off-campus circumstances,” Breyer wrote in the ruling.

Breyer cited some specific behavior that may require schools to act including severe bullying or harassment, threats aimed at teachers or other students, and rule-breaking.

Breyer made clear, however, that schools have less power over off-campus speech than on-campus speech.

“When it comes to political or religious speech that occurs outside school or a school program or activity, the school will have a heavy burden to justify intervention,” Breyer wrote in the ruling.

The ruling left the door open to future cases to better define the scope of that power.

In a dissent, conservative Justice Clarence Thomas said that schools “historically could discipline students in circumstances like those presented here” and that lower courts will be “at a loss” in trying to apply the ruling.

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