US Supreme Court Rules In Favor Pennsylvania Cheerleader In First Amendment Case

Grant Boone
June 23, 2021

The case arose from Levy's posts, one of which 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.

However, the court held that the student's speech did not reach that threshold and that the school violated her First Amendment rights by punishing her.

In 2017, Brandi Levy, then a 14-year-old Pennsylvania high school student at Mahanoy Area High School in Mahanoy City, failed to make the school's varsity cheerleading squad.

While Snapchat messages are created to vanish shortly after being sent, another student screenshotted the image and showed it to her mother, who was one of the cheerleading team's coaches. And of course, it was accompanied by an upside down smiley face emoji.

A federal appeals court agreed with her, declaring that school officials have no authority to punish students for speech that occurs in places unconnected to the campus.

Witold "Vic" Walczak, the legal director of the Pennsylvania ACLU, previously told Insider that school districts effectively had the power to punish the nation's 50 million public-school students for any speech they deemed controversial, even if the students expressed the views off school grounds and outside of school hours.

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.

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The school district and those who sided with it said that schools should be able to punish off-campus speech like Levy's as part of their efforts to regulate cyber-bullying.

"This criticism did not involve features that would place it outside the First Amendment's ordinary protection", Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote for the court. Some of our stories include affiliate links. "L.'s interest in free expression in this case". L.'s irritation with, and criticism of, the school and cheerleading communities", Breyer wrote, adding "the school's interest in teaching good manners is not sufficient, in this case, to overcome B. President Joe Biden's administration supported the district in the case, arguing that off-campus student speech deserves broad protection unless it threatens the school community or targets specific individuals, groups or school functions.

Due to an increase in computer-based learning, the justices said they will not detail a list of what counts as "off-campus" speech protected by the First Amendment.

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor wrote the opinion citing sections of the Ohio Revised Code that requires peace officer training, saying a certain provision "does not provide schools with a mechanism to circumvent that requirement".

"The court recognized that 'America's public schools are the nurseries of democracy.' And we model that democracy by ensuring that students have a right to speak in an environment that is free of bullying and harassment", she said.

"Unlike Tinker, which involved a school's authority under a straightforward fact pattern, this case involves speech made in one location but capable of being received in countless others-an issue that has been aggravated exponentially by recent technological advances", Thomas wrote. Levy and her parents sued the district, seeking reinstatement as a cheerleader and a judgment that her First Amendment rights had been violated.

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