Is SCOTUS right to side with cheerleader in free speech ruling?
- In 2017, former cheerleader Brandi Levy was suspended from school for posting on Snapchat “F- school, f softball, f- cheer, f- everything” when she learned she didn’t make the school varsity team. Levy’s parents took Mahanoy Area High School to court to challenge the constitutionality of the school’s requirements to avoid “foul language and inappropriate gestures.”
- On Wednesday, June 23, 2021, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in an 8-1 vote on Levy’s side that schools have the power to punish student speech if it “genuinely disrupts” classrooms, however a couple swear words did not warrant the definition of disruptive.
- Justice Samuel Alito said, “If today’s decision teaches any lesson, it must be that the regulation of many types of off-premises student speech raises serious First Amendment concerns, and school officials should proceed cautiously before venturing into this territory.”
- The First Amendment of the US Constitution reads “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
While the Supreme Court did recognize that certain off-campus actions which are 'materially disruptive' do not qualify as protected speech, the cheerleader's actions, in this case, didn't rise to that level. The cheerleader's post in question was made to a private group of friends on a site where it would have disappeared in 24 hours, but another student saved a screenshot and shared that with a coach. In their decision, the court cited a 'lack of evidence' of substantial disruption to the school's learning activities, as any such disruption apparently amounted to 'at most, 5 to 10 minutes of an Algebra class 'for just a couple of days.'' Justice Stephen Breyer noted that if 'swearing off-campus' were grounds for such punishment, then 'every school in the country would be doing nothing but punishing.' Breyer wrote in the decision that 'While public schools may have a special interest in regulating some off-campus student speech,' those interests 'are not sufficient' to take priority over the student's right to free speech.
Breyer later commented that the cheerleader's words might seem 'unworthy of the robust First Amendment protections' but pointed out that 'sometimes it is necessary to protect the superfluous in order to preserve the necessary.' As the ACLU of Pennsylvania said, representing the cheerleader and her family in their defense, students 'have the right to find their voices without being unduly chilled.' As with any other individual, the 'government may not penalize speech because listeners find it offensive or even disagreeable.'
The Supreme Court's ruling on the removal of Philadelphia cheerleader from the team over off-campus foul language was unconstitutional (in that the case shouldn't have even made it to the nation's highest court), and deprived the school's ability to ensure the school district's safety and wellbeing. This case was not a matter of the First Amendment, for the teen's freedom of speech was not infringed upon. Instead, the school investigated her message and responded with a rightful reprimand for her disrespectful tirade against their authority. Ranjan Kini, a seasoned professor at Indiana University, specializes in management information systems and the benefits of online surveillance for the wellbeing of students. When commenting on the importance of monitoring social media for school safety, he says, 'Security is important, especially when dealing with students in high school and under 18 years old.' The township has a responsibility to protect the children, therefore addressing and punishing this girl was appropriate as a preventative measure for the future and to prevent the normalization of anger and hatred online.
Another aspect of the case that the Supreme Court failed to consider was the fact that the student was banned from interscholastic participation, that is, extracurricular cheerleading activity—which is ultimately a privilege. A study done from KU ScholarWorks concludes that participation in schooling is a privilege with the dynamic abilities to be given or taken in some cases. Attorney John T. Wolohan re-establishes this as he is featured in a Sadler Sports article written the fact that 'administrators have every right to suspend or bar athletes from competing on teams for any number of reasons.'
Conclusively, the Supreme Court's decision, in this case, discourages school's from keeping the student body safe. Furthermore, this decision redefines the privilege of being a student-athlete.