Free Speech Questioned in Supreme Court Case Involving Angry Teen and School District

In a case that questioned if a public high school student’s First Amendment Rights were violated, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Pennsylvania teen who used social media to express her anger with her high school and two of its sports teams.

In Mahoney Area School District v B.L., the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the lower courts' ruling that the teen’s punishment violated her right to free speech.

The case spotlighted First Amendment rights, causing some school officials to pause and closely examine their policies on regulating student speech. What is protected under the First Amendment when students and schools are involved?

The case of an angry cheerleader

In May of 2017, a then 14-year-old teen posted a photo of herself and a friend holding up their middle fingers and using profanities to voice her displeasure with the cheerleading and softball teams, the school, and “everything.” The teens took the photo outside of school grounds using Snapchat, a social media platform where images sent to friends disappear after 24 hours. After the cheer coach informed the teen she made the JV team instead of the varsity squad, the teen posted the photo and caption in question.

As punishment for her online post, which was viewed by others on the cheer team and the cheer coach, the teen was suspended from cheer for a year. The student and her parents sued the school district, maintaining the school violated her First Amendment Rights, which apply in this case because the school is publically funded.

The Court found that the teen’s message, although vulgar, only amounted to criticism of the school, and the post was not deemed as threatening or obscene. The Court also considered that the teen posted using her personal device while outside school hours and off school grounds. Furthermore, the Court stated that the teen did not identify the school by name and that only the teen's private group of friends received the message.

What type of speech may schools regulate?

Typically, schools may govern student speech that:

  • Is considered harassment, bullying, or threatening to others;
  • Causes considerable disruption to the school or its activities;
  • Is considered vulgar or lewd;
  • Promotes illegal activities, including drug use; and
  • Is perceived to convey the school’s approval.

In addition, schools may regulate speech created when using school computers (included during remote learning and other school-sponsored online activities) and in other instances.

Help is available

The municipal attorneys at O’Reilly Rancilio assist school districts throughout southeast Michigan with First Amendment issues and all other school-related matters. If you have questions, please call 586-726-1000 or visit our website.

Categories: Municipal