Off Campus Does Still Exist: The Supreme Court Decision That Shaped Students Free Speech

We currently live in a world centered around social media. I grew up in a generation where social media apps like Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram just became popular. I remember a time when Facebook was limited to college students, and we did not communicate back and forth with pictures that simply disappear. Currently many students across the country use social media sites as a way to express themselves, but when does that expression go too far? Is it legal to bash other students on social media? What about teachers after receiving a bad test score? Does it matter who sees this post or where the post was written? What if the post disappears after a few seconds? These are all questions that in the past we had no answer to. Thankfully, in the past few weeks the Supreme court has guided us on how to answer these important questions. In Mahanoy Area School District v B.L, the supreme court decided how far a student’s right to free speech can go and how much control a school district has in restricting a student’s off campus speech.

The question presented in the case of Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L was whether a public school has the authority to discipline a student over something they posted on social media while off campus. The student in this case was a girl named Levy. Levy was a sophomore who attended the Mahanoy Area School District. Levy was hoping to make the varsity cheerleading team that year but unfortunately, she did not.  She was very upset when she found out a freshman got the position instead and decided to express her anger about this decision on social media. Levy was in town with her friend at a local convenience store when she sent “F- School, F- Softball, F- Cheerleading, F Everything” to her list of friends on snapchat in addition to posting this on her snapchat story. One of these friends screenshotted the post and sent it to the cheerleading coach. The school district investigated this post and it resulted in Levy being suspended from cheerleading for one year. Levy, along with her parents were extremely upset with this decision and it resulted in a lawsuit that would shape a student’s right to free speech for a long time.

In the lawsuit, Levy and her parents, claimed that Levy’s cheerleading suspension violated her First Amendment right to free speech. They sued Mahanoy Area School District under 42 U.S.C § 1983 claiming that (1) her suspension from the team violated the First Amendment; (2) the school and team rules were overbroad and viewpoint discriminatory; and (3) those rules were unconstitutionally vague. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Levy, stating that the school had violated her First Amendment rights. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the district court decision. The Mahoney School District petitioned for a writ of certiorari. Finally, the case was heard by the Supreme Court.

Mahanoy School District argued that previous ruling in the case, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, acknowledges that public schools do not possess absolute authority over students and that students possess First Amendment speech protections at school so long as the students’ expression does not become substantially disruptive to the proper functioning of school. Mahanoy emphasized that the Court intended for Tinker to extend beyond the schoolhouse gates and include not just on-campus speech, but any type of speech that was likely to result in on-campus harm. Levy countered by arguing that the ruling in Tinker only applies to speech protections on school grounds.

In an 8-1 decision the court ruled against Mahanoy. The Supreme Court held that Mahanoy School District violated Levy’s First Amendment Right by punishing her for posting a vulgar story on her snapchat while off campus.  The court ruled that the speech used did not result in severe bullying, nor was substantially disruptive to the school itself. The court also noted that this post was only visible to her friends list on snapchat and would disappear within 24 hours. It is not the school’s job to act as a parent, but it is their job to make sure actions off campus will not result in danger to the school. The Supreme Court also stated that although the student’s expression was unfavorable, if they did not protect the student’s opinions it would limit the students’ ability to think for themselves.

It is remarkably interesting to think about how the minor facts of this case determined the ruling. What if this case was posted on Facebook? One of the factors to consider that helped the court make their decision was that the story was only visible to about 200 of her friends on snapchat and would disappear within a day. One can assume that if Levy made this a Facebook status visible to all with no posting time frame the court could have ruled very differently. Another factor to consider, is that where the Snapchat post was uploaded ended up being another major factor in this case. Based on the Tinker ruling, if Levy posted this on school grounds Mahanoy School District could have the authority to discipline her for her post.

Technology is advancing each day and I am sure that in the future as more social media platforms come out the court will have to set a new precedent. I believe that the Supreme Court made the right decision regarding this case. I feel that speech which is detrimental to another individual should be monitored whether it is Off Campus Speech or On Campus Speech despite the platform that the speech is posted on. In Levy’s case no names were listed, she was expressing frustration for not making a team. I do believe that this speech was vulgar, but do not believe that the school suffered, nor any other students suffered severe detriment from this post.

If you were serving as a Justice on the Supreme Court, would you rule against Mahoney School District? Do you believe it matters which platform the speech is posted on? What about the location of where it was posted?

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