SCOTUS considers case involving free speech rights for students

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments this week in a case that could have major implications for the First Amendment rights of students.

At issue in the case was whether schools have the authority to censor or punish students for statements they make while out of school and off-campus, as reported by the Washington Examiner.

Details of the case

The case stems from a 2017 incident in Pennsylvania involving high school cheerleader Brandi Levy, who posted an explicit social media message after failing to make the varsity cheer squad. After coaches and school administrators learned of the post, she was cut from the team altogether and suspended from the activity for a year.

According to SCOTUSblog, Levy’s Snapchat message was posted on a Saturday while she was not on campus and included a picture of herself and a friend with their middle fingers raised along with a caption that read: “F*** school. F*** softball. F*** cheer. F*** everything.”

The school subsequently determined that Levy’s conduct constituted a violation of applicable rules and handed down a punishment against her. Her parents responded, however, with a lawsuit claiming that her free speech rights had been violated.

A federal district court agreed with the argument, which was supported by the American Civil Liberties Union, and the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision.

Arguments in the case cited the 1969 Supreme Court decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District that found students were entitled to freedom of speech except in instances where such speech could be reasonably deemed as “disruptive” to the school setting.

Possible precedent

For its part, the school district contended that Levy’s remarks fell under that exception, particularly because her speech targeted the school. Levy’s attorneys, on the other hand, said that establishing such a precedent would amount to an unconstitutional restriction on speech by students regardless of where they are or what is said if it could be described as “disruptive” in any way.

According to Politico, Supreme Court justices appeared divided, although not necessarily along ideological lines, on how far the court should go in its decision. Some seemed to signal that a decision should be exceptionally narrow while others saw the case as an opportunity to broadly clarify an important First Amendment issue.

Conservative Justice Samuel Alito was firmly in the camp pushing for a broad decision, telling the school’s attorney that its argument was “nebulous” about where authorities should draw the line, adding: “I’m quite concerned about the effects of this on freedom of speech. … I have no idea what it means to ‘target the school.'”

Justices Stephen Breyer and Brett Kavanaugh seemed reluctant to make the case a wide-ranging precedent but nevertheless signaled that they agreed with the student’s assertion that the school overstepped its bounds.

Notably, the Biden administration filed a brief siding with the school and citing concerns about cyberbullying and harassment off-campus. A decision in the case is expected to come at some point this summer, and it remains to be seen how impactful it will be in determining the extent of First Amendment liberties.

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