WASHINGTON, D.C. — In a victory for parents’ rights and students’ free speech rights, the U.S. Supreme Court has restricted the authority of public schools to punish students for speech engaged in off-campus.
In an 8-1 decision in Mahanoy Area Sch. Dist. v. B.L., the Supreme Court declared that the suspension of a 14-year-old cheerleader for expressing adolescent angst on Snapchat about not making the varsity cheer squad or softball team violated the student’s First Amendment rights. Although the Court’s ruling allows some off-campus student speech, such as bullying and threats, to be the basis for school discipline, it warned that schools have less authority to restrict the rights of students when they are not on school grounds and not under the supervision or control of school officials. The Rutherford Institute and Americans For Prosperity Foundation filed an amicus brief in the case, warning against attempts by public school officials to undermine parents’ rights by monitoring and punishing students for social media activity that takes place away from school.
“This ruling pushes back against attempts by the Nanny State to undermine the right of parents to determine how best to monitor, regulate and discipline their children for social media activity that takes place away from school,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “At a minimum, school officials should not be allowed to expand their disastrous zero tolerance policies to encompass so-called ‘violations’ that take place in students’ homes and home environments.”
In May 2017, B.L., a 14-year-old freshman at Mahanoy Jr./Sr. High School in Pennsylvania, found out that she had not been selected for the school’s varsity cheerleading squad. Frustrated at also failing to secure a position on a local softball team and stressed over final exams, B.L. posted a photo of herself and a friend extending their middle fingers on her Snapchat social media account accompanied by the words “F*** school f*** softball f*** cheer f*** everything.” The Snapchat post, shared with a select group of friends using her personal cell phone while away from school, was only available for viewing for 24 hours, after which it disappeared and could not be retrieved. B.L. was subsequently suspended from the cheerleading team for her entire sophomore year under school rules forbidding the use of foul language or inappropriate gestures at cheerleading events and requiring that members of the squad not engage in conduct that would tarnish the image of a team or squad.
B.L.’s parents sued the school district, alleging that the punishment violated B.L.’s First Amendment rights. The lower courts upheld the parents’ First Amendment claims, ruling that schools may not punish students for using profanities when the speech occurs off school grounds and rejecting the school’s argument that students can be punished for off-campus speech on the basis that it disrupts some aspect of the school environment. In appealing to the Supreme Court, Rutherford Institute attorneys had warned that fundamental rights of free expression and parental authority would be threatened if schools are given a green light to monitor and punish student speech that takes place when students are not under the authority and control of school authorities. In an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court agreed, ruling that off-campus speech falls within the zone of parental, rather than school-related, responsibility.
The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, provides legal assistance at no charge to individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated and educates the public on a wide spectrum of issues affecting their freedoms.
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