When may a school discipline a student for social media postings? Student speech is protected by the First Amendment. And when a student engages in “pure speech” on political or social issues, the student is entitled to extra protection. The law is clear that schools have authority to discipline students for things they say on social media while at school or at school-sponsored events, provided the speech disrupts classwork or invades the rights of others. But what about something a student posts on social media while the student is not at school or at a school-sponsored event?
The United States Supreme Court addressed this issue on June 23, 2021, in the case of Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. In this case, BL had tried out for the varsity cheerleading squad at the end of her freshman year, but she wasn’t selected. Although B.L. was offered a spot on the JV squad, she wasn’t happy. During the weekend, while at a convenience store, she and a friend used B.L.’s smartphone to post some images on snapchat. According to the Supreme Court’s opinion, one of the images “showed B.L. and a friend with middle fingers raised” and included the caption, “Fuck school, fuck cheer, fuck everything.” The image was seen by the cheerleaders, other students and the cheerleading coaches.
What should the cheerleading coaches do in this situation? After talking it over with the school principal, the coaches decided to suspend B.L. from the JV cheerleading squad for the upcoming year based on her use of profanity and violation of team rules. The Supreme Court ruled against the School District, holding that the suspension violated B.L.’s First Amendment free speech rights (meaning B.L.’s suspension from the JV squad was expunged and she was also entitled to a judgment against the School District for her attorney’s fees).
The Court noted that although some members of the cheerleading team were upset, the school district had not shown that B.L.’s snapchat post had caused “substantial disruption” in the classroom or within the cheerleading program. The Court also explained that a school has less authority to discipline students for social media postings when the posting is not done while the student is at school or at a school-sponsored event.
The lesson here is that schools should not be too quick to discipline students for off-campus speech. Student discipline is more likely to be constitutional when it relates to: (a) perceived threats to school administrators, teachers, other staff or students; (b) speech that criticizes or derides school administrators, teachers or other staff and (c) clear instances of bullying and severe harassment of other students. Otherwise, schools should exercise great caution when considering discipline for off-campus speech.
Case Information: Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., 141 S.Ct. 2038 (June 23, 2021).