Teenage Angst and the U.S. Constitution
“F*** School, F*** Softball, F*** Cheerleading, F*** Everything!” Teenage angst is a cruel mistress, and this time, it strikes with great legal implications. The recent Supreme Court case, Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., reaffirmed that the morality of certain speech and the legality of that speech are two separate things. In other words, I might not believe what you say is good, but I believe in your right to say it. This decision was also tasked with distinguishing on-campus and off-campus speech during the era of online/remote learning. Decisions of the past such as Tinker v. Des Moines (393 U.S. 506 (1969)), Hazelwood School Dist. v. Kuhlmeier (484 U.S. 260 (1988)) and Morse v. Frederick (551 U.S. 393 (2007)) have taught us about the First Amendment rules that govern on-campus speech, however, online learning provides a unique situation regarding the regulation, or lack thereof, of off-campus speech. Is abhorrent speech within the home protected if the home is used as the primary education environment?
In this case, a Pennsylvania high school student who was recently told that she didn’t make the Varsity Cheerleading squad took to Snapchat to express her woes. She typed the aforementioned caption and attached a photo of her and a friend throwing up the middle finger in a display of frustration at a local convenience store. B.L., the anonymous name used for the girl, then posted the photo to her social media audience of over 250 people on Snapchat, a platform where the post would disappear automatically after 24 hours. Unfortunately for B.L., one of her Snapchat friends is the daughter of the Cheerleading coach and took a photo of the image using a different cell phone. The Cheerleading coaches saw the explicit picture and then approached B.L. later in the week to tell her that she was suspended from the Junior Varsity Cheer squad for a full year.
Tinker v. Des Moines (393 U.S. 503 (1969)) tells us that speech on campus is protected by the First Amendment assuming that it does not materially disrupt classwork or involve substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others. Justice Stephen Breyer expressed during the oral arguments that the Snapchat had probably not been significantly disruptive toward the school’s operations. Breyer stated that if it had been disruptive then “every school in the country would be doing nothing but punishing.” Tinker also set the precedent that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
In Hazelwood School Dist. v. Kuhlmeier (484 U.S. 260 (1988)), the court stated that First Amendment rules must be applied to the special characteristics of a school environment. In Kuhlmeier, the court held that “A school need not tolerate student speech that is inconsistent with its basic educational mission, even though the government could not censor similar speech outside the school.” That aids the court in determining the validity of student speech within the school, but what constitutes being “in school”? Are online learners “in school” when they are on zoom calls from the home, or are they simply in the home performing schoolwork? Even if these questions were answered, they still wouldn’t truly reach the bottom of this case. B.L.’s Snapchat message was posted in a convenience store outside of school hours, meaning that there is no case for the idea that B.L. could have been “in school” during this time.
Morse v. Frederick (551 U.S. 393 (2007)) provides slightly more clarity on this issue. Frederick tells us that speech uttered on a class trip – therefore outside of school grounds – that promotes illegal drug use is subject to regulation. Therefore, it is true that some speech outside of the school grounds can be regulated by the school itself.
More cases were cited within the Supreme Court decision itself, however these were the main cases which Justices relied on to support their ruling.
The Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in favor of B.L., with all Justices except Justice Thomas; holding that B.L.’s speech is protected under the First Amendment. Overall, most justices agreed that B.L.’s speech is crude, yet still protected by the U.S. Constitution.
Finally, this case provides little precedent for future Supreme Court cases because the justices did not believe that an overarching definition of off-campus speech would be beneficial in this situation. The main reason that this case is important is because it is uniquely caused by the social environment of the world we live in today. Before COVID-19, questions of what constitutes “on-campus” and “off-campus” would never be considered as deeply as these questions must be considered now. Overall, this decision was not necessarily a landmark decision in terms of importance, but it does provide interesting insight into the way that technology and COVID-19 remote learning are beginning to shape our legal system.
To view the full, unaltered Supreme Court decision of this case, please visit https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/20pdf/20-255_g3bi.pdf .