The US Supreme Court ruled 8-1 Wednesday that Pennsylvania public school officials violated the First Amendment when they suspended a high school cheerleader for posting offensive images on Snapchat.
After failing to make the varsity cheerleading team, former Mahanoy High School student, Brandi Levy, vented in a couple of Snapchat posts while visiting a local convenience store. One of the posts was an image of Brandi raising her middle finger, and a message that said “F*** school f*** softball f*** cheer f*** everything.” Though the posts were set to disappear in 24 hours, one of Levy’s Snapchat friends used a second phone to take pictures of the posts and then spread the images to other students and coaches. As punishment for the posts, school officials suspended Levy from the junior varsity cheerleading team.
Levy’s parents filed suit against the Manahoy Area School District claiming that the suspension violated the First Amendment. The district court agreed, finding that under Tinker, Levy’s post “had not caused substantial disruption at school.” The US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed but found that Tinker did not apply because schools cannot regulate any off-campus speech.
In an opinion delivered by Justice Stephen Breyer, the Supreme Court held that Levy’s interest in free expression outweighed the high school’s special interest in regulating her off-campus speech. The court found that schools have an interest in protecting unpopular expression “because America’s public schools are the nurseries of democracy.” The court then warned that school officials should proceed cautiously before venturing into First Amendment territory.
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) National Legal Director David Cole, who represented Levy, said that it was a “[b]eautiful day to win a big Supreme Court victory for the free-speech rights of 50 million students,” and thanked his ACLU team, and Levy for fighting.