US Supreme Court backs cheerleader in free speech case

Brandi Levy sued after a profane post she made on Snapchat got her kicked off her high school’s cheerleading team.

The justices in an 8-1 ruling decided that the punishment that Mahanoy Area School District officials decided against Brandi Levy for her social media post made at a local convenience store in Mahanoy City on the weekend violated her free speech rights [File: Erin Scott/Reuters]

The US Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled in favour of a Pennsylvania teenager who sued after a profane social media post got her banished from her high school’s cheerleading squad in a narrow decision in a closely watched free speech case.

The justices, in an 8-1 ruling, decided that the punishment that Mahanoy Area School District officials doled out to the plaintiff, Brandi Levy, for her social media post made at a local convenience store in Mahanoy City on a weekend violated her free speech rights.

“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,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in the ruling.

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

But, in a win for educators, the justices also preserved public schools’ power to sometimes regulate speech that occurs off-campus, declining to endorse a lower court decision that found that the US Constitution’s First Amendment guarantee of free speech prohibited extending officials’ authority outside the school.

The case involved the free speech rights of the US’s roughly 50 million public school students. 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 court pondered the competing issues of students having freedom of expression, especially political or religious views, and schools having the ability to prevent disruptions in the internet and social media era.

The American Civil Liberties Union, representing Levy and her parents in the lawsuit against Mahanoy Area School District, had argued that students need protection from censorship and monitoring of their beliefs.

“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,” David Cole, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement.

“The message from this ruling is clear – free speech is for everyone, and that includes public school students,” Cole said.

Levy, now an 18-year-old college student studying accounting, had been a member of the high school’s junior varsity cheerleading squad and tried out near the end of her freshman year for the varsity team. She made her Snapchat post in May 2017, two days after an unsuccessful tryout. She was 14 at the time.

She posted a photo of her and a friend raising their middle fingers, adding a caption using the same curse word four times to voice her displeasure with cheerleading, softball, school and “everything”.

Levy’s photo was visible for 24 hours on Snapchat, along with another post questioning a younger girl’s selection to the varsity squad. Some cheerleaders and students chafed at the posts and the controversy disrupted classes, according to court papers. As punishment, Mahanoy Area High School coaches kicked her off the cheerleading squad for a year.

Levy and her parents sued the district, seeking reinstatement as a cheerleader and a judgement that her First Amendment rights had been violated. A federal judge ordered Levy’s reinstatement, finding that her actions had not been disruptive enough to warrant the punishment.

Speaking on phone with reporters, Levy on Wednesday said she never imagined that a single social media post would end up being argued in the nation’s highest court, but she was proud that she and her family had stood up for the rights of American students.

“I feel as if the school went too far,” Levy said, “and I’m glad the Supreme Court agreed with me.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies