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Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L.

U.S. Supreme Court holds that public school violated student’s First Amendment right to free speech when it suspended her for posting profanity-laden message criticizing the school and cheerleading squad on Snapchat outside of school hours.

When public high school student B.L. failed to qualify for her school’s varsity cheerleading squad, she expressed her frustration by sending two images on Snapchat to her friend group. One of the images depicted B.L. and a friend raising their middle fingers with the caption: “Fuck school fuck softball fuck cheer fuck everything.” The messages were sent outside of school hours and away from the school’s campus. In response, the school suspended B.L. from the junior varsity cheerleading squad. B.L. and her parents sued the school, arguing that the suspension violated her First Amendment speech rights.

The district court ruled in favor of B.L., finding that her punishment violated the First Amendment because her messages did not cause substantial disruption at the school. The Third Circuit affirmed, reasoning that the Supreme Court’s 1969 opinion in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, in which the Court held that public schools may regulate student speech that materially disrupts classwork or involves substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others, does not apply to off-campus speech. 

The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed, although it disagreed with the Third Circuit’s reasoning. It held that public schools do have a special interest in regulating some off-campus speech and that the Third Circuit’s off-campus/on-campus distinction would erode Tinker’s “highly general statement about the nature of a school’s special interests.” The Court declined to articulate a broad rule stating when and how First Amendment standards must give way to a school’s special interests off campus. Instead, it listed three distinguishing features of off-campus speech that often diminish a school’s need to regulate it.

First, the Court observed that a school will rarely stand in loco parentis, or in the place of students’ parents, when a student speaks off campus. Thus, off-campus speech generally falls within the zone of parental responsibility and not the school’s. Second, regulations of off-campus speech, when coupled with regulations of on-campus speech, encompass all of a student’s speech at all hours of the day. Therefore, regulating a certain kind of off-campus speech could categorically prohibit students from ever engaging in that speech, a consequence that courts should be skeptical of. Third, schools have a particular interest in protecting a student’s unpopular off-campus speech because schools are the “nurseries of democracy.” Future generations, it noted, must understand the importance of a free exchange of ideas.

Against this backdrop, the Court found that Mahanoy Area High School violated B.L.’s First Amendment rights because the school’s special interests in regulating off-campus speech did not outweigh B.L.’s free speech interests. On one hand, B.L.’s message reflected criticism of her community’s rules and did not involve features that would preclude it from ordinary First Amendment protection. Furthermore, the Court observed, the circumstances of B.L.’s speech diminished the school’s interest in punishing her: She directed the message to her private circle of Snapchat friends outside of school hours and without identifying the school or members of the school community. On the other side of the equation, the school’s three purported interests were unpersuasive, the Court held. First, the school’s interest in teaching good manners was weakened by the fact that B.L. spoke under circumstances where the school did not stand in loco parentis. Second, the school’s interest in preventing disruption was not substantially harmed by B.L.’s posts, according to the record. Third, the school’s interest in team morale was similarly unaffected by B.L.’s posts. 

The Court made clear that Tinker presents a demanding standard: For school officials to justify prohibiting a particular expression of opinion, their action must be “caused by something more than a mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint.”

A concurring opinion authored by Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Justice Neil Gorsuch, cautioned school officials from regulating off-campus student speech, as such regulations could raise serious First Amendment concerns. Justice Alito noted that even when a student engages in “intemperate and crude” speech, the student still “enjoys the same First Amendment protection against government regulation as all other members of the public.”

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas stated that schools historically could discipline students for off-campus speech that had a “proximate tendency to harm the school,” and that the majority opinion failed to identify a reason to depart from this historical rule. 

Summary prepared by Frank D’Angelo and Brandon Zamudio