TCTA | Supreme Court backs cheerleader's right to free speech
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Supreme Court backs cheerleader's right to free speech

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A cheerleader failed to make the varsity cheer squad. While visiting a local convenience store over the weekend, she posted two images on Snapchat. Her posts expressed frustration with the school and the school’s cheerleading squad, and one contained vulgar language, including the “f bomb,” and gestures. When school officials learned of the posts, they suspended the student from the junior varsity cheerleading squad for the upcoming year. After unsuccessfully seeking to reverse that punishment, the student and her parents sued the district, arguing that her posts were protected free speech and that the district could not discipline her for them. The case was ultimately heard by the United States Supreme Court.

The United States Supreme Court held that the school could not discipline the student for her posts. Schools have a special interest in regulating on-campus student speech when it disrupts classwork or the school environment. This means that schools sometimes have the right to regulate student speech even when that speech takes place off campus. Circumstances under which a school may limit a student’s off-campus speech include serious or severe bullying or harassment targeting particular individuals; threats aimed at teachers or other students; the failure to follow rules concerning lessons, writing papers, using computers, or participation in other online school activities; and breaches of school security devices.

The Court went on to state that a school does not have an unlimited right to restrict off-campus student speech and that three features of off-campus speech should be considered when determining when it is not appropriate to limit the speech. First, a school may not stand in the role of a parent when a student speaks off campus. Second, if a school is permitted to regulate both on-campus and off-campus speech, this means that it can limit all the speech a student utters during the full 24-hour day. Because of this, courts must be more skeptical of a school’s efforts to regulate off-campus speech, for doing so may mean the student cannot engage in that kind of speech at all. Third, the school itself has an interest in protecting a student’s unpopular expression, especially when the expression takes place off campus, because America’s public schools are the nurseries of democracy.

After applying the above considerations, the Court concluded that the school violated the cheerleader’s First Amendment rights when it suspended her from the junior varsity cheerleading squad. The statements made in the student’s posts reflect criticism of the rules of a community of which the student forms a part. The posts appeared outside of school hours from a location outside the school. She did not identify the school in her posts or target any member of the school community with vulgar or abusive language. She also transmitted her speech through a personal cellphone, to an audience consisting of her private circle of Snapchat friends.

The school’s interest in teaching good manners and consequently in punishing the use of vulgar language is weakened by the fact that the student spoke outside the school on her own time, under circumstances where the school did not stand in as a substitute for her parents. And the vulgarity in her posts encompassed a message of criticism. The school was not able to show that the post caused disruption at school, because the evidence showed that that discussion of the matter took, at most, 5 to 10 minutes of an algebra class for just a couple of days and that some members of the cheerleading team were “upset” about the content of the Snapchats. Additionally, there was nothing to suggest a substantial interference in, or disruption of, the school’s efforts to maintain cohesion on the school cheerleading squad.

Absent a showing of substantial interference with the school environment, the cheerleader’s speech was protected, and the district’s action in removing her from the cheerleading squad violated her rights of free speech under the First Amendment.