Friday, March 22, 2019

Federal Court Rules School District Violated Free Speech Rights of Mahanoy Area Cheerleader

A federal court on Thursday ruled that the Mahanoy Area School District in Schuylkill County violated the free speech rights of a student when the school removed her from the cheerleading squad in 2017 for off-campus expression.

The student, who was in tenth grade at the time, had posted a “Snap” to the popular social media platform Snapchat that, using expletives, expressed her frustration with school and with cheerleading. She was punished under cheerleading team rules that prohibit “disrespect” and prohibit posting any “negative information” about cheerleading online.

The Snap was posted on a weekend and while the student was not at a school activity.

“The court recognized that public schools have no authority to discipline students for off-campus speech, except in very narrow circumstances,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which represented the student. “Public schools need to stick to educating students and stay out of the business of disciplining them during their off hours.”

The student, who is known by her initials, B.L., in court filings because she is a minor, was reinstated to the cheerleading team after winning a temporary restraining order in September 2017. Now in 11th grade, she continues to participate in cheerleading.

In the ruling, federal district court Judge A. Richard Caputo explained that the First Amendment does not allow schools to punish students for their out-of-school speech just because that speech is inconsistent with what the school is teaching or because other students complain about it.

In previous cases brought by the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the federal Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has ruled in favor of public school students who were disciplined for speech that was critical of school officials while they were off campus.

“As Judge Caputo observed, schools don’t have absolute authority over students. Students have the right to speak freely on their own time. And that’s no less true for cheerleaders,” said Molly Tack-Hooper, staff attorney at the ACLU of Pennsylvania and counsel for B.L.

On September 25, 2017, the ACLU-PA filed suit on behalf of B.L., a high school sophomore who has been cheerleading since she was in fifth grade and was expelled from the team as punishment for out-of-school speech.  The case involves a First Amendment challenge to the Mahanoy Area High School’s “Cheerleading Rules,” which prohibit cheerleaders from posting any “negative information” about cheerleading online.  B.L. was kicked off the junior varsity cheerleading squad for posting a Snap to Snapchat on the weekend that school officials believed was “negative,” “disrespectful,” and “demeaning.”  Snapchat is a popular social media smartphone app that allows users to post images that are accessible on the platform only for short periods of time—ranging from one second to 24 hours—and are self-deleting.  The post for which B.L. was punished was a photo of her and a friend at a convenience store holding up their middle fingers with the text “fuck school fuck softball fuck cheer fuck everything” superimposed on the photo.  B.L. posted the Snap on a Saturday, and made it available only to her Snapchat friends.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit previously held, in two other ACLU-PA cases, that schools cannot punish students for out-of-school speech that does not pose a risk of substantially, materially disrupting school activities.  B.L.’s lawsuit challenges the Cheerleading Rules on their face and as applied to B.L. to punish her for the content of her out-of-school speech.
Along with the complaint, the ACLU-PA also filed a motion for temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction asking the court to order the District to immediately and temporarily restore B.L. to the team while the litigation proceeds.
On September 26, 2017, the court issued a temporary restraining order restoring B.L. to the cheerleading squad.

On October 5, 2017, the court granted the plaintiff's motion for preliminary injunction, finding that she was likely to succeed in her lawsuit, and issued an order reinstating B.L. to the cheerleading squad while the litigation proceeds.

On March 21, 2019, the court granted the plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, finding that the school did not have the authority to discipline her for her off-campus speech and that the school was in violation of the First Amendment.

Information posted from Press Release


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1 comment:

  1. Express frustration with the school if you want. But if you're on my team and go to social media to bitch about it, maybe you don't need to be on my team.