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Supreme Court Sides With Cursing Cheerleader Over Snapchat Post

June 23, 2021 by Dan McCue
Supreme Court Sides With Cursing Cheerleader Over Snapchat Post
Outside the U.S. Supreme Court building. (Photo by Dan McCue)

The Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that a Pennsylvania school district violated the First Amendment by punishing a student over a vulgar social-media rant sent away from school grounds.

The vote was 8 to 1, with Justice Clarence Thomas dissenting.

The underlying case was filed on behalf of Brandi Levy, a Pennsylvania high school cheerleader who was furious about being passed over for the varsity squad and sent a vivid Snapechat message about it to about 250 of her friends and followers.

Critical to today’s outcome was the fact she sent the message on a Saturday and from a convenience store where she and other teenagers like to hang out.

In the message, Levy and a friend are shown with their middle fingers raised, and, using much more colorful language, say “[to hell with] school,” “[to hell with] softball, [to hell with] cheer, and [to hell with] everything.”

Though one of the appeals of using Snapchat is that the messages are intended to vanish a short time after they are sent, one of Levy’s fellow students took a screenshot of the image and showed it to her mother, who happens to be a coach.

The school suspended Levy from cheerleading for a year, saying the punishment was needed to avoid chaos and maintain a “teamlike environment.”

Levy sued the school district, and ultimately scored a victory in the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which held the First Amendment did not allow public schools to punish students for speech outside school grounds, relying on a precedent from a different era.

The Supreme Court hadn’t taken up a student free speech case since 2007. In that case, it ultimately sided with a principal who had suspended a student for displaying a banner that said “Bong Hits 4 Jesus.”

In this case, the justices looked all the way back to the Vietnam War-era and the Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District for guidance.

In TInker, the court sided with students who wanted to wear black armbands to protest the Vietnam War, explaining the students had not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

But disruptive speech, at least on school grounds, could be punished, the court added.

In dissent, Justice Thomas wrote, “The Court transparently takes a common-law approach to today’s decision. In effect, it states just one rule: Schools can regulate speech less often when that speech occurs off campus. It then identifies this case as an “example” and ‘leav[es] for future cases’ the job of developing this new common-law doctrine.

“But the Court’s foundation is untethered from anything stable, and courts (and schools) will almost certainly be at a loss as to what exactly the Court’s opinion today means,” he said.

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