In landmark free speech decision, SCOTUS rules that schools may not police social media posts made off campus

In an 8-1 vote, the Supreme Court ruled that the Mahanoy Area School District violated a student's First Amendment rights by punishing her for a profanity-laced Snapchat rant she made off campus.

This is the most significant campus free speech decision since Tinker v. Des Moines, which addressed students wearing arm bands in protest of the Vietnam War.

In a landmark decision on campus free speech, the Supreme Court today ruled in an 8 to 1 vote in Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. that students’ social media speech conducted off campus is protected by the First Amendment. 

The high school student, identified as B.L. in the lawsuit, initially sued the Mahanoy Area School District after her school kicked her off the cheerleading squad due to a profane rant about school that she posted to Snapchat. B.L. made the junior varsity cheer team, not the varsity one, and used a four-letter word regarding her school in a Snapchat post expressing her frustration; she was off campus when posting the Snapchat on a weekend day. A lower court decided that the school overstepped by kicking B.L. off of the junior varsity squad, but the school district appealed.

Justice Breyer, writing for the majority, noted, “It might be tempting to dismiss B.L.’s words as unworthy of the robust First Amendment protections discussed herein. But sometimes it is necessary to protect the superfluous in order to preserve the necessary. ” Only Justice Clarence Thomas dissented.

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As a result of this decision, schools will no longer be able to retaliate when students voice their opinions off campus, so long as the speech in question is not disruptive to the function of the school. The “substantial disruption” test was established in Tinker v. Des Moines, which found that students were within their rights to wear arm bands protesting the Vietnam War to school because it did not substantially disrupt the school’s operations.

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During oral arguments in April, B.L.’s lawyer told the Court that she “was punished for merely expressing frustration with a four-letter word to her friends outside of school on a weekend. Her message may seem trivial, but for young people, the ability to voice their emotions to friends without fear of school censorship may be the most important freedom of all.”

Campus Reform has reported on several instances of colleges overstepping their control of student speech on social media. Wesleyan College expelled a student for racist social media posts and then reversed the expulsion when it learned that she didn’t make the offensive posts. The University of Tennessee nearly expelled a student for posting Cardi B lyrics on social media. 

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @AngelaLMorabito