By Ariane de Vogue and Devan Cole, CNN
The Supreme Court ruled in favor of a former high school cheerleader who argued that she could not be punished by her public school for posting a profanity-laced caption on Snapchat when she was off school grounds.
The case involving a Pennsylvania teenager was closely watched to see how the court would handle the free speech rights of some 50 million public school children and the concerns of schools over off-campus and online speech that could amount to a disruption of the school’s mission or rise to the level of bullying or threats.
The 8-1 majority opinion was penned by Justice Stephen Breyer.
“It might be tempting to dismiss (the student’s) words as unworthy of the robust First Amendment protections discussed herein. But sometimes it is necessary to protect the superfluous in order to preserve the necessary,” Breyer wrote.
Breyer said that the court has made clear that students “do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression even ‘at the school house gate.”
“But,” he said, “we have also made clear that courts must apply the First Amendment in light of the special characteristics of the school environment.”
Outburst from JV cheerleader
“F–k school f–k softball f–k cheer f–k everything” Brandi Levy, then 14, wrote in 2017. She was reacting to the fact that as a junior varsity cheerleader she had failed to get a spot on the varsity squad at Mahanoy Area High School in Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania.
When school officials learned of the outburst, Levy was suspended from the JV team for having violated school rules. But her lawyers sued, alleging the school had violated her freedom of speech. Levy is now 18 and a freshman at Bloomsburg University.
“Today’s decision may seem obvious to those who have a hard time seeing why public schools should be able to regulate any and all off-campus speech by students, but the fact that the court is identifying circumstances in which they can’t is actually a big deal,” said Steve Vladeck, CNN Supreme Court analyst and professor at the University of Texas School of Law.
“Although the line between the off-campus speech that schools can and can’t regulate is less than clear, the fact that there is a line will have significant ramifications for just about all public school administrators going forward. It’s a rare win for a student in a speech case before the current court,” he added.
Dissent from Thomas
Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, writing that students like the former cheerleader “who are active in extracurricular programs have a greater potential, by virtue of their participation, to harm those programs.”
“For example, a profanity-laced screed delivered on social media or at the mall has a much different effect on a football program when done by a regular student than when done by the captain of the football team. So, too, here,” Thomas wrote.
This story is breaking and will be updated.