US Supreme Court hears case on student free speech

Washington (AFP) –


When Brandi Levy didn't make her high school's varsity cheerleading squad, the 14-year-old took to Snapchat with a photo of her upraised middle finger and a string of expletives.

Levy could not have known at the time that her outburst would be the subject of a case before the US Supreme Court.

But that's where it ended up on Wednesday as the nation's highest court debated the school's decision to take away her pom poms for a year.

The case may appear frivolous, but it touches on issues such as off-campus freedom of expression for public school students and online harassment.

"There is a huge gap between the broad and very important free speech issues that have been briefed and discussed this morning and the particular incident involved in this case," said Justice Samuel Alito.

The nine justices of the Supreme Court are being called upon to decide whether public schools have the right to punish students for comments made outside their establishment.

Levy posted her message on a Saturday in 2017, away from the grounds of her high school in Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania.

"I tried out for the varsity team for cheerleading and I didn't make it, so I was pretty upset," she told the ACLU, the powerful civil rights group which is representing her.

Armed with her cell phone, Levy took a picture of herself and a friend with her middle finger in the air and added a series of expletives against school, cheerleading, softball, and "everything."

While intended for just her 250 or so Snapchat followers, her message reached her coaches, who banned her from the field for a year.

- 'Frightened to death' -

Her parents took her case to court citing the First Amendment of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech. They won and did so again on appeal.

Local school officials asked the Supreme Court to intervene, citing a 1969 ruling that allowed students to wear black armbands in opposition to the Vietnam War but specified that speech that disrupted school operations could be sanctioned.

Schools "retain authority to regulate conduct that happens outside their property lines but creates substantial effects inside," Mahanoy officials argued in their submission.

They also argued that cell phones and distance learning during the coronavirus pandemic had made boundaries artificial.

In the era of social networks, drawing the line between free speech and what is punishable is a particularly thorny question.

"I'm frightened to death of writing this standard," said Justice Stephen Breyer, a progressive member of the court.

"I strongly share Justice Breyer's instincts when he mentioned that we probably can't write a treatise here, and shouldn't write a treatise here and foresee all the things that could arise and a lot of hypotheticals that have been raised," said conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

The Biden administration filed a brief in support of the Mahanoy school authorities.

It said a "categorical" ban on punishment "could substantially undermine efforts by schools to address harassment and bullying, much of which might take place off campus."

ACLU lawyer David Cole said that while school authorities may limit freedom of expression on school grounds, students should enjoy the same rights as adults elsewhere, particularly in the era of the internet.

"The internet underscores the importance of assuring the kids outside of school have the right to speak freely," Cole said. "Because that's where kids speak.

"They share their most intimate thoughts on the internet with their friends," he said.

Levy made the same point in a statement she released following the Supreme Court arguments.

"I want the court to understand that this is how kids today express themselves and that they should be able to do that without worrying about being punished at school," she said.