In an 8 to 1 opinion Wednesday, the United States Supreme Court issued their decision in Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. that a Pennsylvania school district had violated the First Amendment by punishing a student for a vulgar social-media message sent away from school grounds. Brandi Levy, the plaintiff in the case, was suspended from her school’s cheerleading squad because of a Snapchat message she had posted while off-campus.
The court said that schools have to reach a higher bar to punish students for out-of-school speech. It also determined that being able to punish any speech outside of school would be to deny young people their First Amendment rights.
The case has been described as this generation’s Tinker v. Des Moines. In 1965, five students protested the Vietnam War with black armbands; the school suspended them for breaking rules against protesting. The Supreme Court found that the students had been denied their free speech rights.
High school students from the Kentucky Student Voice Team joined other youth-led organizations, March For Our Lives, Student Voice, and Houston Independent School District Student Congress in filing an amicus brief in Mahanoy. They argued that Tinker must be expanded to protect student speech in off-campus and non-school contexts, reasoning that without strong First Amendment protections for free speech, students could be punished by schools for advocating for legislation, organizing and marching for school safety and gun control, and criticizing administrative decisions, among others.
High school senior Connor Flick, a member of the Kentucky Student Voice Team who lives in Boone County and who helped mobilize other students across the state around the issue affirmed the value of the verdict. “The importance of maintaining a student’s rights to free expression on a national level cannot be overstated. It is especially exciting to see this type of ruling come out of the Supreme Court and to think that students ourselves may have had something to do with it.
High school senior Pragya Upreti, a member of the Kentucky Student Voice Team from Fayette County said the ruling validates the work she and other students do beyond school. “Kentucky youth are organizing and speaking out for change and justice in social media and on the streets. Schools should not have the authority to patrol or censor us in those spaces,” she said.
In delivering a summary analysis of the court’s opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer explained the larger implications. “The school itself has an interest in protecting a student’s unpopular expression, especially when the expression takes place off campus,” he wrote, adding, “because America’s public schools are the nurseries of democracy.”
The Kentucky Student Voice Team is a statewide organization of young people who are co-creating more just, democratic Kentucky schools & communities as research, policy & advocacy partners.