(ConservativeUnit)- The Supreme Court has agreed to take up a First Amendment case that involves a public school disciplining a student for speech she made off-campus.
A school district in Pennsylvania appealed a decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which ruled that a ninth-grade student had the right to say what she wanted to about the school district on social media.
In 2017, the student was notified one day that she would be on the junior varsity cheerleading team and didn’t make varsity. She then sent a frustrated message to 250 friends on Snapchat.
The message showed the student as well as her friends holding up their middle fingers, using curse words to express their dissatisfaction with “softball,” “cheer,” “school” and “everything.”
While messages on Snapchat disappear after they’re seen, one her friends took a screenshot of it and showed it to their mom, who is a coach. The school then suspended the student for a year from cheerleading. The school district said they gave the punishment to “avoid chaos” while maintaining a “team-like environment.”
The student sued the school district, and won in Philadelphia’s Third Circuit. That court found that even though the message was “crude, rude and juvenile,” it was protected speech under the First Amendment.
In their ruling, the Third Circuit cited the 1968 landmark ruling from the Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist. That decision rendered that students “do not ‘shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.'”
That decision made one narrow exception — any speech that would “materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school.”
The Third Circuit ruled the Tinker case wouldn’t apply to “off-campus speech,” which is what they determined that the student’s Snapchat post was. The court ruled that there wasn’t enough of a connection to the school environment that would allow administrators in the district to hand down a punishment on the student.
The Mahanoy Area School District appealed that decision, though, and the Supreme Court has decided to hear the case in February. The school district appealed to the highest court, saying they and other school districts around the country needed guidance on what they could and couldn’t do in terms of disciplining students for their actions off-campus.
Their brief reads:
“The question presented recurs constantly and has become even more urgent as COVID-19 has forced schools to operate online. Only this court can resolve this threshold First Amendment question bedeviling the nation’s nearly 100,000 public schools.”
A Yale law professor, Justin Driver, agreed with the school district’s argument about the importance of the case, but not about their stance. He said:
“It is difficult to exaggerate the stakes of this constitutional question. In the modern era, a tremendous percentage of minors’ speech occurs off campus but online. Judicial decisions that permit schools to regulate off-campus speech that criticizes public schools are antithetical to the First Amendment.
“Such decisions empower schools to reach into any student’s home and declare critical statements verboten, something that should deeply alarm all Americans.”