The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that the First Amendment protects a student’s off-campus vulgarity – in one case.
But maybe not always.
The issue arose when Mahanoy Area High School, in Pennsylvania, suspended student B.L. for her vulgarity – posted on Snapchat during a period when she was hurt, frustrated and insulted by her rejection by a varsity cheer team in the school.
She used the F-word to condemn the results.
The Supreme Court noted she “posted two images on Snapchat” that expressed her frustration, one containing “vulgar language and gestures.”
School officials suspended her from junior-varsity cheer team, and she and her parents then went to court, alleging the actions violated her constitutional rights. The district court and appellate court both agreed with her, and now so has the Supreme Court.
The 8-1 decision was written by Justice Stephen Breyer. Justice Clarence Thomas was the only dissent.
The lower courts had sided readily with the student, with the district judge granting a temporary restraining order, a preliminary injunction reinstating her to the JV cheer team and a summary judgment including nominal damages and attorneys’ fees.
He also ordered the school to clear her school record.
The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, but the school insisted on taking the case to the Supreme Court.
“We have made clear that students to do not ‘shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression,’ even ‘at the school house gate,'” the opinion said. “But we have also made clear that courts must apply the First Amendment ‘in light of the special characteristics of the school environment.'”
Specifically, the school has an interest when vulgar language is used during a school assembly on school grounds, promotions of illegal drug use during a field trip and speech that may be seen has coming from the school.
Also if said speech “disrupts classwork.”
Further, the opinion said there could be other situations that “may call for school regulation,” such as bullying or harassment, threats and more.
But that list is “uncertain,” the justices wrote, regarding when “ordinary First Amendment standards must give way off campus to a school’s special need to prevent … substantial disruption of learning-related activities or the protection of those who make up a school community.”
But generally students’ off-campus speech is the responsibility of their parents, not the school, schools have a “heavy burden” to justify intervention in off-campus political or religious speech, and schools should be in the job of protecting “unpopular expression” anyway, since “America’s public schools are nurseries of democracy,” the court said.
“Our representative democracy only works if we protect the ‘marketplace of ideas.’ This free exchange facilitates an informed public opinion, which, when transmitted to lawmakers, helps produce laws that reflect the people’s will. That protection must include the protection of unpopular ideas, for popular ideas have less need for protection.”
The opinion said, “Thus, schools have a strong interest in ensuring that future generations understand the workings in practice of the well-known aphorism, ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.'”
The justices said the post, “while crude, did not amount to fighting words.”
And they said there was no evidence of any substantial disruption from her statement.
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