Should Public Schools Be Allowed to Punish Students for Speech on Social Media?
A new court decision finds that public schools are not allowed to punish students for free-speech made on social media
In 2017, a freshman at Mahanoy Area High School in Pennsylvania, referred to as “B. L.” in court documents, failed to make it into her school’s varsity cheerleading team. Like many teenagers, “B.L.” took to social media to express her frustration. She posted a photo of herself and her friend with their middle fingers up, along with a series of f-bombs. She wrote “f*** school, f*** softball, f*** cheer, and f***everything.”
“f*** school, f*** softball, f*** cheer, and f***everything.”
Soon after, a teammate showed the post to her mother, a coach, which resulted in “B.L.” being suspended from the junior varsity cheerleading for a year; The school cited that a punishment was needed to “avoid chaos” and maintain a “team-like environment”, according to the New York Times.
“B.L.”, along with her parents filed a suit against the school district, and won in the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals. The court cited that “the First Amendment did not allow public schools to punish students for speech outside school grounds.” The case is now waiting for a possible Supreme Court review.
“The First Amendment does allow public schools to punish students for speech outside school grounds.
Are There Any Precedent?
The question of juvenile free speech in schools have been around for centuries. In 1969, the Supreme Court had a landmark case known as Tinker v. Des Moines ISD, where a group of students decided to wear black armbands to protest against the Vietnam War. In that case, to school until after New Year’s Day, the planned end of the protest. In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that students “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
However, in B.L.’s case, the court took the opposite stance. They cited that a Snapchat story constituted of “off-campus” speech, and thus could not be regulated by the school. But, this raises the question: What is in-school speech? And What is out-of-school speech?
What is in-school speech? And What is out-of-school speech?
What we call in-school speech is not confined to the physical boundaries of a school building. In fact, even the Third Circuit Court, which made the decision in B.L.’s case, acknowledges that. However, if a student makes a post on social media, targeted at the school’s students, which makes an impact in class, does that constitute in-school speech? Or Should we just consider all social media posts as non-school speech, regardless of the impact in class?
Calling in-school/out-of-school speech distinction is “tricky from the beginning,” and “the difficulty has only increased after the digital revolution.” said the Third Circuit Court.
In an interview with the New York Times, Yale law professor Justin Driver says court decisions allowing schools to regulate off-campus speech was “antithetical to the First Amendment.” He added that “Such decisions empower schools to reach into any student’s home and declare critical statements verboten, something that should deeply alarm all Americans.”
Impacts of This Case
Currently, with the COVID-19 pandemic, most American students are “going to school” on their laptop in the comfort of their homes. Social Media, of course, has been growing for nearly twenty years now, and has become an integral part of our lives. In many cases, technological platforms are the only way to interact with friends, peers, and even teachers.
While B.L.’s weekend plans with friends sounds like stories from another age, this decision will have a long-lasting impact applicable to students all across the nation.