Sunday, January 10, 2021

U.S. Supreme Court Will Hear Mahanoy Area Student's Free Speech Case

Earlier this week, the United States Supreme Court announced that it has granted a Schuylkill County school district’s request to hear a case in which the school punished a student for online speech that occurred off-campus on a weekend, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.
In 2017, the student, who was a minor at the time and is known in court documents as B.L., sent a message - a “snap” - to her followers on the social media platform Snapchat expressing her frustration with not being named to the varsity cheerleading squad at Mahanoy Area High School. The snap was a photo of the student and a friend with their middle fingers raised accompanied by the text, “fuck school fuck softball fuck cheer fuck everything”. In response, the school removed her from the junior varsity cheerleading team.

B.L., who is being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, filed a lawsuit against the school district, claiming the school district’s punishment violated her First Amendment rights. A federal district court judge ordered the school to reinstate B.L. to the team, ruling that the school had exceeded its authority in punishing B.L. for off-campus speech, a decision that a federal appeals court affirmed last year. B.L. remained a member of the cheerleading team until she graduated in 2020.

In a statement, the ACLU of Pennsylvania responded to the court’s announcement. 

“The beating heart of the Bill of the Rights is the idea that government power is limited. This public school wants the nation’s highest court to grant it sweeping new authority to punish students for speech that occurs away from school and causes no disruption. We look forward to explaining to the justices why the authority that the school is seeking is antithetical to the concept of free speech that is the foundation of the First Amendment.” said  Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania

B.L.’s father, Larry Levy said “As a parent, I know that sometimes kids do foolish things. But when my daughter is on her own time and out of school, it’s my role as a parent to address her behavior. In this situation, I did that and felt that the school overstepped its bounds. We’re in this case because we don’t want to see schools have the power to discipline students for what they do on their own time. Leave that authority to parents.”

“Allowing public schools to punish student speech that takes place off-campus outside of school hours would teach students the wrong lesson - that they have no free-speech rights anywhere. Requiring students to refrain from criticizing their sports team or extracurricular activity when they are off-campus as a condition of participating in that activity, as the school district did in this case, is inconsistent with core First Amendment values. We will explain to the court why the First Amendment limits the school’s ability to punish students for this type of speech, and we hope that the court will agree with the four previous rulings in this case that recognized that.” said Sara Rose, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

In a statement made available by the Mahanoy Area School District's Facebook page, the district stated:

"Mahanoy Area School District stands behind its restrained approach to disciplining student speech-which is the same approach that thousands of schools across the country have taken for generations. We are proud of our extracurricular programs. Learning to participate in team sports and abide by team rules teaches students lifelong lessons about responsibility and teamwork. Thus, when BL broke team rules and posted messages that she admitted would undermine team morale and chemistry, BL's coaches responded with a temporary, team-related punishment: suspending her from the team for the year. Obviously, BL's family disagrees with that punishment, and responded by bringing a federal lawsuit. That lawsuit has produced a judicial decision that leaves schools powerless to respond to speech that is directed at the school environment and would have a devastating effect on students' well-being during the school day. The School District views that decision as inimical to our basic mission of safeguarding student welfare. Groups representing 1.7 million teachers and thousands of school districts nationwide have supported our efforts to reverse this unprecedented ruling in the Supreme Court, and we are hopeful that the Supreme Court will grant review."

No date has been provided on when the case would be heard by the Supreme Court.


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