What public school students say off campus is not punishable by their respective schools, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
The 8-1 ruling in favor of Brandi Levy’s case was a victory for Generation Z, which uses social media as a popular communication vehicle. It’s the first time an appeals court issued a broad interpretation of student speech in more than 50 years.
When Levy didn’t make the varsity cheerleading team in 2017 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, now a college student, 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.
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 in April.
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.