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Should a profane Snapchat rant by a frustrated central Pennsylvania high school cheerleader become the catalyst for expanding the law to allow school districts to punish students for controversial comments they post on social media while off school grounds?
That might be an iffy proposition, judging from the give and take during the U.S. Supreme Court’s two-hour hearing Wednesday on the case of Mahoney Area School District versus Brandi Levy.
Several justices seemed sympathetic to Levy, who was suspended from the cheerleading squad over her Snapchat post. There also seemed to be some skepticism regarding expanding school authority over off-campus student speech, although the justices peppered attorneys for both sides with questions pretty evenly.
District officials, who have lost this battle repeatedly in the lower courts, are urging the nation’s highest court to expand on 51-year-old case law, the so-called Tinker ruling, that permits school officials to discipline students for “disruptive” speech uttered on campus that significantly disrupts educational operations.
They want the Tinker ruling to be stretched to allow school officials to punish speech they deem disruptive to school operations that students post on Snapchat, Facebook and other social media platforms while the students are not on school property.
The dispute hinges on the year-long suspension from the cheerleading team that Levy received as punishment for a fleeting expletive-laced Snapchat post she published in 2017 while out of school on a weekend. She was 14 years old at the time and had failed to make the varsity cheerleading squad for her Schuylkill County high school.
Her post stated, “”(Expletive) school, (expletive) softball, (expletive) cheer, (expletive) everything.”
Lisa S. Blatt, the attorney for the school district, said extending Tinker to cover out-of-school student speech is necessary because “off-campus speech, particularly on social media, can be disruptive.”
Such an extension should only allow disciplinary action for such speech that causes a “material and substantial disruption” of school operations and or involves harassment such as bullying, Blatt said. She said Tinker already bars districts from punishing students for protected political and religious speech and that safeguard would remain in place.
Several justices asked why Levy’s Snapchat prompted such a reaction from the district.