WASHINGTON—The Supreme Court signaled reluctance Wednesday to extend throughout the internet campus rules that curb student speech, as arguments drew wide agreement among justices that the First Amendment lets public schools address threats and cyberbullying but not punish expression merely because administrators find it distasteful.
The 1969 decision, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, famously declared that students don’t “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
the attorney representing Pennsylvania’s Mahanoy Area School District in the case before the court Wednesday, turned that formula around, arguing that the advent of digital communications meant that administrators’ authority couldn’t be limited to school grounds.
“When it comes to the internet, things like time and geography are meaningless,” Ms. Blatt told the court. Still, she said students could only be disciplined for school-related speech, so young people’s right to discuss political or social issues retained constitutional protection.
“Where do we draw the line with respect to [speech] targeting a school?” Justice
asked. Students’ worlds revolve around school, she said, with their conversations involving their studies, classmates, activities and teachers. “Most of their exchanges have to do with their perceptions of the authoritarian nature of their teachers and others,” she said.
That was true of the Snap that sparked the case. Junior varsity cheerleader
posted one on Saturday in May 2017 after learning she hadn’t made Mahanoy Area Jr./Sr. High School’s varsity squad, while an incoming freshman had.
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“F— school f— softball f— cheer f— everything,” she wrote on her cellphone, posting a photo of herself and a friend extending middle fingers. The Snap went to about 250 of her friends on Snapchat, including classmates and others on the cheer team before disappearing in 24 hours, Snapchat’s best-known feature.
A fellow cheerleader obtained a screenshot of the Snap, however, and showed it to her mother, who was a cheerleading coach. The school then suspended Ms. Levy from the junior varsity team for the school year, saying she had violated various rules including prohibitions of foul language, unsportsmanlike conduct and disrespect of the school.
The school rejected appeals from Ms. Levy and her parents but federal courts in Pennsylvania found that the punishment violated the First Amendment. The district appealed to the Supreme Court.
“She used swear words,” said Justice
“Did that cause a material and substantial disruption? If swearing off campus did, I mean, my goodness, every school in the country would be doing nothing but punishing.”
who has coached girls’ basketball, said Ms. Levy’s response was understandable.
“My reaction when I read this, she’s competitive, she cares, she blew off steam like millions of other kids have when they’re disappointed about being cut from the high-school team,” he said, adding: “I mean, a year’s suspension from the team just seems excessive to me.”
“Coaches have to know their team and know what works,” Ms. Blatt said. “They have to act in the best interests of all teammates.”
Ms. Levy’s attorney,
of the American Civil Liberties Union, argued that administrators enjoy no special power over students outside of school functions.
asked how schools could deal with cyberbullying and abusive speech posted off-campus that targets individual students.
School rules prohibiting “severe or pervasive interpersonal aggression that interferes with access to education could well satisfy the First Amendment,” Mr. Cole said.
said a message posted over the weekend could be read on a smartphone during the school day. “So I don’t know how you locate the conduct in school versus out of school when you have social media,” he said.
“Schools are perfectly permitted to ban cellphones, etc., in school, and, indeed, Mahanoy High School does precisely that,” Mr. Cole said.
The Supreme Court’s school-speech cases since Tinker have tended to back administrators seeking to discipline students, and many court observers expected that the Mahanoy case could lead to another paring back of young people’s expressive rights.
That led to a profusion of friend-of-the-court briefs, including one from
Mary Beth Tinker,
the brother and sister who have remained advocates for student speech in the half-century since their landmark case.
“Today, their armbands may have been digital ones displayed over the school’s logo in a social media post, combined with a message to fellow students and friends petitioning them to do the same,” their brief said. If the Mahanoy district’s argument prevails, it added, “it is far from certain Tinker would have been decided the same way under this updated scenario.”
A decision in the case, Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., is expected before July.
Write to Jess Bravin at email@example.com
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