Cheerleader’s First Amendment Rights on Snapchat Headed to U.S. Supreme Court

Cheerleader’s First Amendment Rights on Snapchat Headed to U.S. Supreme Court

04.08.21
04.08.21

When Brandi Levy didn’t make the varsity cheerleading team four years ago as a freshman at Mahanoy Area High School in Pennsylvania, she took to Snapchat to voice her frustration.

“I was frustrated. I was upset. I was angry. And I made a post on Snapchat,” Levy told ABC News Live. “I said, ‘F school, F cheer, F softball, F everything.'”

Days later after her social media post was shared with 250 friends, the school district accused her of breaching a code of conduct and suspended her from cheerleading. 

The teen sued the school district and won in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia. The court said the First Amendment did not allow public schools to punish students for speech outside school grounds.

Now, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case April 28 and hand down a decision by the end of June. 

The Mahanoy Area School District stated, “The First Amendment is not a territorial straitjacket that forces schools to ignore speech, that disrupts the school environment,” the school district wrote in its brief to the Supreme Court.

Sara Rose, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney defending Levy, said the U.S. Supreme Court has never decided how far school authority extends, or whether it extends at all, to students’ out-of-school speech.

“The school district presented the question before the court as whether Tinker should apply outside of school, and as our position – even if the court were to decide that Tinker applied outside of school – our client would still win because her speech didn’t create a material and substantial disruption of the schools,” Rose told YR Media. 

The famous 1969 court decision of Tinker v. Des Moines ruled that students don’t surrender their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse gate, but that educators can limit speech on school property when it’s materially disruptive. It has not addressed how school-related speech expressed off-campus can be handled.

Levy said her Snapchat did not violate a school cheerleading code that required “respect” and “no negative information” to be expressed while part of the team.

“I think that it didn’t because I was not directing towards any coaches,” Levy said, according to ABC News Live. I didn’t have the school’s name in it. I didn’t have the coaches’ name or any teammates’ names in it,” she said.

Rose said young people should be aware of the consequences that posting on social media can bring, even if it’s a post that isn’t meant to be permanent. 

“I think the real risk here is that if the court were to allow schools to discipline students for speech that takes place on social media, outside of school, and that’s gonna take away a really valuable form of communication from kids,” Rose said. 

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