Did you ever not make your high school sports team or get a bad grade on an exam? What did you do to blow off steam? Did you talk to your friends or parents about it or write in your journal about it? When I was in High school- some of my classmates would use Twitter or Snapchat to express themselves. However, the rates for the use of smartphones and social media were much lower than they are today. For instance, today high school students use their smartphones and social media at an incredibly high rate compared to when I was in high school almost ten years ago. In fact, according to Pew Research Center, 95% of teenagers have access to smartphones and 69% of teenagers use Snapchat. This is exactly why the recent Supreme Court decision on Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. is more important than ever, as it pertains to student’s free speech rights and how much power schools have in controlling their student’s off-campus speech. Further, this decision is even more necessary because the last time the Supreme Court ruled on student’s free speech was over fifty years ago in Tinker v. Des Moines, way before anyone had smartphones or social media. Therefore, the latest decision by the Supreme Court will shape the future of the power of school districts and the first Amendment rights for students for maybe the next fifty years.
The main issue in Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. is whether public schools can discipline students over something they said off-campus. The facts in this case, occurred when Levy, was a sophomore at Mahoney Area School District. Levy didn’t make the varsity cheerleading team; naturally, she was upset and frustrated about the situation. So, that weekend, Levy was at the convenience store in town with a friend. Levy and the friend took a Snap Chat with their middle finger raised with the caption “F- School, F-Softball, F-Cheerleading, F-Everything” and sent it to her Snap Chat friends. Then, the picture was screenshotted and shown to the cheerleading coach. Which lead to Levy being suspended from the cheerleading team for one year.
Furthermore, Levy and her parents did not agree with the suspension and the school’s involvement in Levy’s off-campus speech. Therefore, Levy and her parents filed a lawsuit claiming their suspension violated Levy’s First Amendment free speech rights. Levy sued the school under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging (1) that her suspension from the team violated the First Amendment; (2) that the school and team rules were overbroad and viewpoint discriminatory; and (3) that 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.
In an 8-1 decision the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Levy. The Supreme Court held that the Mahoney Area School District violated Levy’s First Amendment rights by punishing her for using vulgar language that criticized the school on social media. The Supreme Court noted numerous reasons why they ruled in favor of Levy. Additionally, The Supreme Court noted the importance of schools monitoring and punishing some off-campus speech. Such as, speech and behavior that is “serious or severe bullying or harassment targeting particular individuals; threats aimed at teachers or other students.” This is more necessary than ever before due to the increase in online bullying and harassment; that can impact the day-to-day activities of the school and the development of minors.
While it’s important in some circumstances for schools to monitor and address off-campus speech. The Supreme Court noted three reasons that would limit schools from interfering with student’s off-campus speech. First, a school, concerning off-campus speech, will rarely stand in loco parentis. Therefore, schools do not have more authority than parents. Especially not for off-campus speech. The parent is the authority figure; and will decide to discipline or not in most activities in their child’s life, especially what happens outside of school. This is important because parents have the authority to raise and discipline their children the way they believe, not based on the school district’s beliefs.
Second, “from the student perspective, regulations of off-campus speech, when coupled with regulations of on-campus speech, include all the speech a student utters during the full 24-hour day.” There would be no boundaries or limitations to what the school district would be allowed to discipline their students on. For instance, what if a group of students on a Saturday night decided to make a Tik Tok, and during the Tik Tok, the students curse and use vulgar language, would they be in trouble? If there were no limits to what the school could punish for off-campus speech, then those students could be in trouble for their Tik Tok video. Therefore, it’s important that the Supreme Court made this distinction to protect the student Frist Amendment rights.
Finally, the third reason is the school itself has an interest in protecting a student’s unpopular expression, especially when the expression takes place off-campus.” For instance, the Supreme Court stated that if schools did not protect their students’ unpopular opinions, this would limit and ruin the student’s ability to express themselves and schools are a place for students to learn and create their own opinion- even if that opinion differs from the school’s. To conclude, this would severely impact the student’s ability to think for themselves and create their own opinion, and respect other’s opinions that differ from their own.
Overall, I agree with the Supreme Court’s decision in this case. I believe it’s essential to separate in-school speech and off-campus speech. However, the only time off-campus speech should be monitored and addressed by the school is if there is bullying, harassing, or threatening language against the school, groups, or individuals at the school. With that being said, the Supreme Court noted three very important reasons as to why the public schools cannot have full control of students’ off-campus speech. All three of these reasons are fair and justifiable to protect the parents and students from being overly controlled by the school. To conclude, there is still a lot of questions and uncertainty, especially since technology is rapidly advancing and new social media platforms emerging frequently. I am curious if the Supreme Court will rule on a similar within the next fifty years and how this will impact schools in the next few years.
Do you agree with the Supreme Court decision and how do you see this ruling impacting public schools over the next few years?