Teenage Cheerleader’s Snapchat Rant Sparks Supreme Court Case on Free Speech
Written by AskTheLawyers.com™
When a Pennsylvania high school discovered one of their students sent a Snapchat while off-campus to her friends using profanity and the middle finger, the student was banned from her cheerleading squad for the year. This issue brought up the immediate question of whether or not academic institutions can penalize students for things said outside of school, as well as how the First Amendment applies to free speech for students.
In 2017 at the age of 14, Brandi Levy posted an angry Snapchat photo that disappeared after 24 hours.
In 2017 Levy was relegated to the junior varsity cheer squad rather than the varsity squad for which she had tried out. Immediately following these tryouts and her disappointment, Levy sent a Snapchat about the incident to her friends; the Snapchat was a photo in which she used a four-letter swear word to describe cheerleading, softball, school, and “everything”, and showed her middle finger raised.
Like most Snapchat content, Levy’s photo automatically disappeared after 24 hours. However, in this case, another student had taken a screenshot of the photo and showed it to one of the cheerleading coaches at Mahanoy Area High School. The coaches responded by suspending Levy from the cheerleading team for a year. Levy and her family responded by suing the school district, alleging a breach of her First Amendment rights (i.e. free speech).
Now 18 years old, Levy’s case is going to the Supreme Court to determine whether or not students can be punished for off-campus speech.
It’s important to note that not only was the Snapchat in question sent in private to Levy’s friends, but the picture was sent from the Cocoa Hut, a 24-hour convenience store in Mahanoy City and not on school grounds. In fact, the picture was not sent on a school day, but on a Saturday.
The last Supreme Court case of this much significance related to student rights occurred in 1969, when the Court decided that students were allowed to wear black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War as long as it did not cause a “material and substantial” disruption. By the same logic, it might not be immediately apparent how a single student’s Snapchat photo sent on a Saturday while off-campus could cause a disruption big enough to warrant the school’s intervention.
The School District argues that Levy’s Snapchat was disruptive because it was sent to other children she attended school with.
After a Philadelphia court ruled in Levy’s favor, the Mahanoy Area School District brought the case before the Supreme Court of the United States. The School District argues that because fellow students and cheerleaders received the Snapchat, Levy’s actions did constitute disruption; furthermore, the District expressed concern that a decision in Levy’s favor would make it harder for them to prevent harassment between students outside of school on social media.
This is a tricky point to make; especially considering that the line between what a school is responsible for policing and what a student’s family should be responsible for has become increasingly blurred, especially with remote learning bringing students’ academic and home life closer than ever.
The decision regarding Levy’s case will undoubtedly set an important precedent for all future similar cases between students and their school districts in matters of free speech.