PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 on Wednesday in favor of a Central Pennsylvania high school student who was thrown off the cheer squad for a profane social media post.
Brandi Levy was a rising sophomore, age 14, in the Mahanoy Area School District in 2017 when she didn’t make the cheer squad. Levy posted a screed to Snapchat, flashing the middle finger and using the equivalent vulgar language to go with it.
Levy was suspended from cheerleading activities for a year. In an opinion by Justice Stephen Breyer, the high court ruled that the suspension violated Levy's First Amendment freedom of speech rights.
Dr. Michael Moreland, a law professor at Villanova University, says the high court’s ruling was based primarily on two facts: She wasn't on campus when she made the post, and it was outside of school hours on a weekend.
"And so the Supreme Court agreed that punishing her for that kind of speech, where it's outside of school in a somewhat private social media setting, that the school's disciplinary reach doesn't extend that far," he said.
Moreland says the Court's prevailing opinion expresses a feeling that the Mahanoy School district overreacted in disciplining her with suspension from the cheer team for a year.
"When it comes to this kind of First Amendment-protected speech, she can say what she wants, especially when she's off campus. The fact that she's using swear words is a problem for her parents, not a problem that the school district can take on itself to discipline," Moreland said.
“The standard was that there has to be substantial disruption of the school, in order for the school to punish speech that otherwise would be protected."
However, he said, Levy's Snapchat post did not have enough of a link to the school's activities.
Despite ruling in Levy's favor, Breyer wrote that the right of schools to regulate student speech do not always disappear that speech takes place off campus. "The school’s regulatory interests remain significant in some off-campus circumstances," he wrote.
The majority opinion states there are still tools a school district can use to discipline students for bullying or harassment, but Moreland says he believes they will be more reluctant now to take action for the kind of off-campus speech in Levy's case.
The case drew extra interest at a time of remote learning because of the coronavirus pandemic and a rising awareness of the harmful effects of online bullying.
One of Levy's posts pictured her and a friend with raised middle fingers and included repeated use of a vulgarity to complain that she had been left off the varsity cheerleading squad.
"F——— school f——— softball f——— cheer f——— everything," she wrote near the end of her freshman year, from a local convenience store and on a Saturday. Now 18, Levy recently finished her first year of college.
Levy's parents filed a federal lawsuit after the cheerleading coach suspended her from the junior varsity team for a year. Lower courts ruled in Levy's favor, and she was reinstated.
The school district appealed to the Supreme Court after the broad appellate ruling that said off-campus student speech was beyond schools' authority to punish.
The dispute is the latest in a line of a cases that began with Tinker v. Des Moines, the Vietnam-era case of a high school in Des Moines, Iowa, that suspended students who wore armbands to protest the war. In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court sided with the students, declaring they don’t “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
The court also held then that schools retained the authority to restrict speech that would disrupt the school environment.
Breyer wrote that Levy's case seemed less serious than its Vietnam-era predecessor.
“It might be tempting to dismiss B.L.’s words as unworthy of the robust First Amendment protections discussed herein. But sometimes it is necessary to protect the superfluous in order to preserve the necessary,” he wrote, using Levy's initials because that was how she was identified in the original lawsuit. Levy has since granted numerous interviews allowing her name to be used.
Justice Samuel Alito wrote in a concurring opinion that school officials in Mahanoy got “carried away” in seeking to discipline Levy. “If today’s decision teaches any lesson, it must be that the regulation of many types of off-premises student speech raises serious First Amendment concerns, and school officials should proceed cautiously before venturing into this territory,” Alito wrote.
In dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that he would have upheld Levy's suspension.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.