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On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed a controversial holding by the Third Circuit that schools cannot regulate students’ speech outside of the school’s walls. In doing so, the Court reaffirmed that while a school’s ability to restrict student speech outside of the schoolhouse gates is less than it would be inside, it does continue to play an important role in school governance.
In Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., the Supreme Court addressed the case of a high school student who took her frustration in not making her school’s varsity cheerleading team to Snapchat. She posted a photo, complete with a caption containing profane language criticizing the outcome, and another comment questioning the team’s leadership decision-making. Although the student posted the Snapchats outside school hours and away from the school’s campus, the junior varsity cheerleading coach suspended the student from the team for a year.
As expected, the Court explicitly declined to fashion a rule defining exactly when schools can regulate off-campus student speech. Instead, the Court, relying on the precedent set in Tinker and its progeny, held that while schools’ ability to regulate off-campus speech is much less great than their ability to regulate speech inside the building, it is still a viable concept. The majority opinion acknowledges that in the modern world, there may be situations in which school needs to regulate off-campus student speech, such as online schooling, breaches of school security and school computers, writing papers, bullying, threats, and speech that targets specific individuals.
The Court highlighted three aspects of off-campus speech that diminish the “unique educational characteristics” which permit schools to regulate students’ on-campus speech when such regulation would ordinarily violate the First Amendment. First, schools rarely stand in place of parents off-campus. Second, regulation of both on-campus and off-campus runs the risk of allowing the school to regulate all speech ever uttered by a student. Third, schools have an interest in protecting students’ unpopular expression, especially away from school.
As for B.L.’s speech, the Court ruled the school district violated the student’s First Amendment rights by disciplining her. The Court explained the district’s interest in regulating the cheerleader’s speech was diminished because the Snapchats were posted away from school, the speech was directed toward a private group of the student’s friends, the posts did not identify the school or target any person, and there was little evidence that the Snapchat posts disrupted the school environment. Thus, while the Court has now made it clear that schools may regulate off-campus student speech, B.L.’s case was not a case where this regulation was permissible.
Read the full opinion here: https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/20pdf/20-255_g3bi.pdf