In a June 30 decision, B.L v. Mahanoy Area School District, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a Pennsylvania high school violated a cheerleader’s First Amendment rights when it kicked the young woman off the squad for a message she had posted on SnapChat. A distruct court judge had ruled last year for the ex-cheerleader, whose post pictured the teen and her friend holding up their middle fingers accompanied by the eloquent sentiment , “fuck school fuck softball fuck cheer fuck everything.” She was upset because she had only made the junior varsity cheerleading squad, rather than the varsity team.
The ACLU of Pennsylvania argued the case for the girl, so at least sometimes the organization still puts its partisan politics aside to do its traditional job of looking out for the First Amendment. The group called the ruling a “landmark decision,” finally barring schools from policing students’ off-campus speech using the claim that it might disrupt school activities.
The Supreme Court decision on campus speech, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, did not apply to off-campus speech. Tinker held that student speech could be regulated by schools only if it would substantially disrupt school operations or interfere with the rights of others. That case involved a school disciplining students when they wore black armbands to class as a protest against the Vietnam War.
The 3rd Circuit majority ruled .“We hold today that Tinker does not apply to off-campus speech—that is, speech that is outside school-owned, -operated or -supervised channels and that is not reasonably interpreted as bearing the school’s imprimatur,”
Because the teen’s speech was outside the school context, Tinker did not apply. The cheerleader’s speech “lies beyond the school’s regulatory authority,” the court said.
The ACLU’s press release stated that the decision was important “because it recognizes that students who are outside of school enjoy full free speech rights, not the diluted rights they have inside the schoolhouse.”
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