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From Snapchat to the Supreme Court. Justices begin to reweigh First Amendment rights of students

The Supreme Court heard arguments on Wednesday on whether a school was right to suspend a student from cheerleading after the student posted a profanity-riddled rant on Snapchat

SHARE From Snapchat to the Supreme Court. Justices begin to reweigh First Amendment rights of students

Photo Illustration by Alex Cochran

The Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday on whether public school can punish students for things students’ say while off school grounds or if that speech should be protected by the First Amendment.

The case involves a 14-year-old freshman girl who was suspended from participating on a Pennsylvania high school cheerleading squad for a year after she posted a profanity-laced video to social media.

The teen shared the rant on Snapchat — a video sharing app where posts are meant to be temporary — during a weekend in 2017 after, as a freshman, she was passed up for the varsity squad, ABC News reported.

  • “I was frustrated. I was upset. I was angry. And I made a post on Snapchat,” student Brandi Levy, told ABC News about her post.
  • Levy said she didn’t think the Snapchat post violated the school’s cheerleading code of conduct explicitly directed toward the school. “I didn’t have the school’s name in it. I didn’t have the coaches’ name or any teammates’ names in it,” she said to ABC News.
The Supreme Court is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington.

In this June 29, 2020, file photo, the Supreme Court is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Associated Press

From a Pennsylvania school to the Supreme Court

The case picked up traction the last few years after Levy’s parents filed a lawsuit in federal court, “claiming the suspension violated their daughter’s constitutional rights to free speech,” according to The Associated Press.

  • Two federal court in Pennsylvania agreed with Levy that her rights had been violated and ordered the teen to be allowed back on the squad, reported ABC News.
  • “The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia also sided with Levy and held that schools can’t impose discipline for what students say when they’re off campus,” the AP reported.

The Supreme Court heard arguments about the Levy case on Wednesday.

  • The arguments expand the debate in the 1969 Supreme Court ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which found that “students and teachers do not ‘shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,’” The Washington Post reported.
  • In Tinker, students were suspended after wearing black arm bands to school in silent protest of the Vietnam War. The Supreme Court ruled that the the school was wrong to have suspended the students.
  • “But it also held that schools have broader authority over students than the state generally does when restricting speech and that authorities can discipline students for on-campus speech that causes or is likely to cause ‘material and substantial’ disruption of school functions,” according to the Post.

The arguments and what justices are saying

The justices spent time Wednesday weighing the scope of Tinker and if team participation, which is optional for students and can come with additional behavior standards, means schools could enforce codes of conduct beyond the school grounds.

  • Lisa S. Blunt — a lawyer arguing on behalf of the school — said whether students are or are not on school grounds should not matter because the internet can “make the speaker’s location irrelevant,” and what should matter is if “the student targeted both the school audience and a school topic,” according to The New York Times.
  • American Civil Liberties Union lawyer David D. Cole — Levy’s representative — argued that Levy “was punished for merely expressing frustration with a four-letter word to her friends outside of school on a weekend,” and that “for young people, the ability to voice their emotions to friends without fear of school censorship may be the most important freedom of all,” according to the Times.
  • “Expanding Tinker would transform a limited exception into a 24/7 rule,” said Cole, the AP reported.

Justices Stephen Breyer and Brett Kavanaugh said the school may have overreacted when punishing Levy.

  • Breyer said he didn’t “see much evidence” that Levy caused a “material and substantial disruption” at the school, “and if swearing off campus did, I mean, my goodness, every school in the country would be doing nothing but punishing,” The New York Times reported.
  • “As a judge, and maybe as a coach and a parent too, it seems like maybe a bit of overreaction by the coach,” said Kavanaugh, reported the AP.

But, as arguments concluded Wednesday, the justices appeared to think that maybe the Levy case was “not be the best one to use to write a sweeping rule about student speech in the digital age,” according to the AP.

  • The case was also complicated by the fact Levy had volunteered to participate on the cheerleading team.
  • The court is expected to make ruling later this summer.