Cheerleader’s Profane Message Prompts Free Speech Debate in US Supreme Court

WASHINGTON, D. C.-The Supreme Court will begin hearing arguments Wednesday regarding students’ rights to freedom of speech outside the classroom. 

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court is set to hear arguments in the Manahoy Area School District’s appeal of a lower court ruling in favor of Brandi Levi, a teenager whose profanity-laced Snapchat got her kicked off her cheerleading team in 2017. 

After being rejected from the varsity cheerleading team, then-14-year-old Brandi Levi sent a frustrated Snapchat, taken at a convenience store in Mahanoy City on a Saturday, to 250 friends. 

Using a curse word four times, Levi expressed her frustration with her “school,” “softball,” “cheer” and “everything.” While Snapchats ordinarily disappear shortly after they’ve been viewed, one student took a screenshot of the Snapchat and showed her mother, the cheerleading coach. 

The school barred the student from cheerleading for a year so as to “avoid chaos” and maintain a “team-like environment.” 

Levi sued the school district for their decision and the Philadelphia-based court ruled in her favor, explaining that the First Amendment did not allow public schools to punish students for speech uttered outside school grounds. 

Now, more than three years later, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments that could decide whether schools can punish students for things said off-campus, including on social media platforms like Snapchat. 

“I shouldn’t have to be afraid to express myself and I should be able to do it how I want to without being punished by anybody. What I said, it wasn’t targeting, it wasn’t bullying, harassment or anything like that,” Levy explained. 

Should the Supreme Court rule in Levy’s favor, according to the district and its supporters, it could become harder for teachers and school administrators to punish students for bullying, racism, cheating and invasions of privacy, all things that occur frequently online, beyond school property or during off hours. 

President Joe Biden’s administration supports the district, arguing that off-campus speech must be protected unless it threatens the school’s community or targets specific individuals, groups or school functions. 

Ronn Nozoe, chief executive officer of the National Association of Secondary School Principals said, “Principals have to ensure the safety and well being of everybody on their campus. It can’t be the Wild West.” 

The district argued that off-campus speech from students can harm a school and the way it functions, stating that internet blurs the lines of what occurred off-campus or on-campus. 

“If a student on the weekend uses her private email to blast harassing messages to school email accounts, where did that speech happen?” The district asked in a legal filing. 

Levy’s Snapchat was visible for 24 hours, along with another post that questioned a younger girl’s selection to the varsity team. Some cheerleaders and students were hurt by the posts and the controversy disrupted class, according to court documents. 

The ACLU said that giving educators the power to judge off-campus speech would extend censorship to everywhere students go and prompt schools to perform “dragnet online surveillance” of students. 

The Supreme Court is expected to make a ruling in Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. by the end of June. 

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