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What do 1969, Snapchat and the First Amendment have in common?

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Members of a joint military honor guard stand watch over the Bill of Rights at the National Archives Rotunda in Washington, Dec. 15, 1991.

Dennis Cook, Associated Press

What do 1969, Snapchat and the First Amendment have in common? 

Answer: The Supreme Court and the potential to set a new precedent for free speech. 

In 2017, “B.L.” was a high school sophomore who was upset she didn’t make the varsity cheerleading team, instead finding herself placed on the junior varsity squad. The teen posted a photo on Snapchat of her and a friend raising their middle fingers to the camera with a caption containing expletives directed at the school, softball, cheer and “everything.” 

The cheer coaches reacted to this post by suspending her from cheerleading for a year. Her father retaliated by bringing a lawsuit, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, claiming an infringement of the student’s First Amendment rights. 

On the surface, it seems the sort of story one might hear about in passing, not one that has the potential to set a precedent for the country. 

B.L. is no longer a high school student, but after the Supreme Court hears her case, it will likely be the new marker for free speech. 

The last landmark decision in this arena was in 1969 — a year most current high school students’ grandparents were beginning high school. The idea of social media was decades in the future, and cyberbullying wasn’t a term even found in science fiction. 

Tinker v. Des Moines ruled that students were allowed to wear black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. The decision maintained that students retained their free speech rights on campus, saying students “do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” 

Schools do, however, have the right to punish students for speech that “would materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school.” 

Where does a social media post — that was made off campus and on the weekend — fall? And does it have a larger impact on constitutional freedoms?

The decision could impact the power schools have to rein in cyberbullying and harassment, much of which happens off campus and after school hours, but has very real — sometimes fatal — consequences for students.  

But a move against B.L. could disrupt parents’ right to supervise their children, giving schools power to punish children for “anytime anywhere” speech, effectively allowing them to subject students to a constant monitoring of shared thoughts or opinions. 

Add in the layer of Zoom school, and the line between what speech schools can regulate and what is in the hands of parents becomes even more blurred. 

Thank goodness for the First Amendment. It is the foundation upon which the decision will be made.

Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. is not the only case that holds significant implications for constitutional rights. 

The court also announced it will hear an appeal of a New York law that restricts people from carrying concealed handguns in public. 

After a devastating spree of mass shootings and President Joe Biden’s vow to pursue stronger gun control measures, the case has garnered widespread attention and stoked further debate about court packing and the influence of politics on the court. 

With a 6-3 conservative majority, many expect the Supreme Court to vote in favor of the right to keep and bear arms. Regardless, it will be one of the most influential cases on gun control in years. 

Thank goodness for the Second Amendment. It, too, is a foundational principle upon which the court will provide guidance.

These two cases evince the court’s role in maintaining the integrity of our Constitution and and Bill of Rights, protecting the freedoms outlined therein. It also shows how complex that role can be. 

We hope the justices will exercise judicial neutrality and hear each side fully, free of the political shouting that tends to rise when such cases reach the high court. And we hope the public can respect the judicial branch of government as it balances time-honored and inspired principles against the challenges of a new day.