On April 29, 2021, we wrote about the case of Brandi Levy, who sued her high school after being disciplined for posting F-bombs on her social media after she was not promoted to the varsity cheerleading team. Alas, on Wednesday, June 23rd, 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in favor of Levy, determining that the punishment administered by the Mahanoy Area School District officials violated her free speech rights. The justices struggled with whether a school could discipline students for off-campus speech.
Writing for the majority was Justice Stephen Breyer, who stressed the importance of maintaining the First Amendment in public schools, stating, “Our representative democracy only works if we protect the ‘marketplace of ideas’ … 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 ruling placed restrictions on the authority that schools have over their students’ lives, allowing students to freely express themselves outside of campus.
However, the Supreme Court made sure to specify that this case was not to set the precedent that schools will allow their students to behave recklessly while outside of the classroom, clarifying that any cases of bullying, harassment, cheating, and threats are all grounds for schools to take legal action against students. Basically, students cannot post comments that will have a substantial disruption to school activities.
This ruling marks the first Supreme Court case in 50 years to see a high school student win a free-speech case. The last time was in 1969, in the ruling of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, where the Supreme Court ruled in favor of students wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War, stating students don’t “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” This statement held true in the recent ruling, granting additional insight into how the Supreme Court may rule on future cases in the age of digital media.