SCOTUS and the Snapchat cheerleader

A free speech case involving children and public schools is going to be going before the Supreme Court. This case, out of Mahonoy, Pennsylvania, has been rattling around in the courts for nearly four years now and it could set a new precedent in terms of how restrictive public schools are allowed to be when it comes to the speech of minors. At the heart of the case is a former high school cheerleader who elected to use some, shall we say… inappropriate langue when posting to her friends on the social media app Snapchat. When word of her ranting reached school officials, she was suspended from the cheerleading squad for a year. While this may sound like a trivial matter, it does speak to precisely how broad the power of public schools can be when it comes to the off-campus activities of students. (NY Post)

A cheerleader who was suspended from the squad because she posted “f–k school, f—k cheer” on Snapchat will now have her case heard by the Supreme Court — which will weigh whether her free speech rights were violated.

Brandi Levy was just 14 and a freshman cheerleader in Mahonoy, Pennsylvania when she sent the offending Snapchat to her friends after not getting accepted into the varsity squad, she told ABC News.

“I was frustrated. I was upset. I was angry. And a made a post on Snapchat,” she told the station.

Ms. Levy had apparently tried out for the varsity cheerleading squad as a freshman and was not selected. This clearly didn’t sit well with her and she whipped out her phone and posted the comments in question. Cleaning them up a bit for a PG-13 audience, she wrote “F school, F cheer, F softball, F everything.”

Was the teenager’s language vulgar and offensive? Of course. That sort of thing would have seen my sister grounded for a week back in the 60s. (Because of the glaring double standard in my family, my brother and I were allowed to swear by the time we were in high school, but that’s a story for another day.)

But even if Levy used language that would not have been allowed in the school lunchroom, she wrote the post while she was off-campus and there’s no suggestion that she said similar things while at school. So does the school have the right to mete out punishment for speech that takes place outside of school property? They clearly thought they did because they’ve continued fighting the case for several years. The school continues to argue that it has the authority to regulate speech that “disrupts the school environment.”

So far the school hasn’t fared well in its legal efforts. Two federal courts and one appeals court have found in favor of Levy. The Supreme Court is the school’s last shot at prevailing.

As far as I’m concerned, the power of public schools to regulate the speech of children should only be applied in the narrowest circumstances possible and only on school property. Had the school simply sent a note home to Levy’s parents, none of the current legal mess would likely have been needed. But the rules seem to be changing in the internet era. Everyone from schools to employers to law enforcement seems to be scouring people’s social media accounts and making decisions based on what people say in virtual forums rather than simply judging them based on their performance in the workplace or, in this case, the school.

This is a disturbing trend, but I’m not sure what course of action remains available. Levi might prevail in her lawsuit and at least part of me hopes that she does. But the best that most people will likely be able to do is either stay off of social media or be far more conscious of what they’re posting. It may come back to bite you in any number of ways.