School Regulation of Off-Campus Speech

July 2021


On June 23, 2021, the Supreme Court ruled in Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., et al. that the school district violated B.L.'s First Amendment rights when it suspended her from the junior varisty cheerleading team for a year over the student's Snapchat speech. Although a district can punish some of a student's off-campus speech, the district has way less leeway to do so than it does to punish on-campus speech. 

Fourteen-year-old B.L. tried out for Mahanoy Area High School's varsity cheerleading team and for a non-school softball team. B.L. failed to make the varsity cheerleading team, instead making the junior varsity team. She also failed to get her preferred position on the softball team. On a weekend, B.L. and a friend were at a convenience store. B.L. posted two pictures to her Snapchat story. The first was a picture of the two friends, with middle fingers raised, which B.L. captioned "F__k school f__k softball f__k cheer f__k everything." [B.L. included the entire "F" word]. The second image was a blank screen captioned "Love how me and [other student] get told we need a year of jv before we make varsity but tha[t] doesn't matter to anyone else?" These posts were visible to B.L.'s approximately 250 friends for twenty-four hours. Someone took a screenshot of the posts and shared them. The cheerleading coaches were made aware of the images. During the following week, a number of other students, including some cheerleaders, appeared visibly upset by the posts, and students posed questions about B.L.'s posts for approximately five to ten minutes during an Algebra class. The coaches suspended B.L. from the team for the year. 

The Court found that B.L. spoke off-campus, outside of school hours, using her own cellphone, to her Snapchat friends. She criticized "the rules of a community of which [she] form[ed] a part," and she did not use fighting words or obscenity, identify her school, or target anyone at the school in doing so. Neither did the disruption alleged in this case rise to the level of substantial interference or disruption. The school therefore violated her First Amendment rights when it punished her. 

The takeaway is that schools should proceed carefully when deciding whether to punish a student for off-campus speech and evaluate such incidents on a case-by-case basis. Consult with legal counsel as needed in determining the best course of action. 


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