WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Supreme Court agreed on Wednesday with Independent Women’s Law Center (IWLC) that a school district violated the First Amendment rights of a student cheerleader when the district punished her for an angry message that she sent via Snapchat after being cut from school athletic teams. The decision was 8-1, with Justice Stephen Breyer authoring the opinion of the Court and Justice Clarence Thomas dissenting.
Jennifer Braceras, director of Independent Women’s Law Center, said, “The ruling is a significant victory for free speech and freedom of expression. In the era of cancel culture, the ruling will, hopefully, deter school administrators from monitoring student social media accounts and/or punishing students for expressing viewpoints that some consider ‘triggering.’”
The case, Mahanoy School District v. B.L., raised complicated questions about whether public schools can punish students for things they post on social media and has broad implications for student speech about everything from the quality of school lunches to politics and social justice.
In March, IWLC filed an amicus brief with the Court in support of the student, arguing that allowing public schools to punish students for off-campus, on-line speech that offends others will have a chilling effect on student expression.
The school district claimed it has the power to punish off-campus speech that “targets” or “disrupts” the school. But IWLC argued that the school district was seeking the power to punish students for off-campus, on-line speech that criticizes or talks about the school community in ways that offend others.
At oral arguments, Justice Breyer told attorneys that he didn’t see evidence that this particular snap caused “material and substantial disruption” at school. If the school can punish a student for this type of snap, Breyer suggested, “every school in the country would be doing nothing but punishing.”
In his majority opinion, Breyer noted that public schools have a duty to protect students’ unpopular views, especially when expressed off-campus.
“America’s public schools are the nurseries of democracy,” Breyer wrote, and
[o]ur representative democracy only works if we protect the ‘marketplace of ideas.’ . . . schools have a strong interest in ensuring that future generations understand the workings in practice of the well-known aphorism, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Nevertheless, Breyer stressed that the Court was not barring schools from ever punishing speech that occurs off-campus and outside its control.
According to Breyer:
“The school’s regulatory interests remain significant in some off-campus circumstances[, including] serious or severe bullying or harassment targeting particular individuals; threats aimed at teachers or other students; the failure to follow rules concerning lessons, the writing of papers, the use of computers, or participation in other online school activities; and breaches of school security devices, including material maintained within school computers.”
To read IWLC’s brief, click HERE.
Independent Women’s Law Center advocates for equal opportunity, individual liberty, and respect for the American constitutional order.