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Supreme Court Sides Cheerleader in Freedom of Speech Case

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The Supreme Court makes a First Amendment ruling.

Richard Sharrocks / Getty Images

Editor’s Note: This court case focuses on social media posts that contain language that some readers may find offensive.

The US Supreme Court Failed On Wednesday Pennsylvania public school officials violated a student’s First Amendment rights by suspending her for a vulgar off-campus spiel on Snapchat, a landmark case that will affect the way students use social media. In an 8-1 ruling in the case, Mahanoy v. BL, the court said the student’s Snapchat post was entitled to First Amendment protection.

“It is certainly a cautionary rule that schools cannot assume they have the same power over online speech that they have on campus during school hours,” said Frank LoMonte, director of the University’s Brechner Center for Freedom of Information. from Florida. “It is clear that the overwhelming majority of judges are skeptical of giving schools a blank check of punitive authority that follows students everywhere 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.”

The case stemmed from an obscenity-laden Snapchat message Brandi Levy, a Pennsylvania high school cheerleader, shared in 2017 after she failed to make it to varsity. At the time, Levy was a freshman and a member of the junior varsity cheerleading team at Mahanoy Area High School. He posted the Snapchat message on a Saturday at a convenience store in Mahanoy City.

“Fuck school, fuck softball, fuck everything,” Levy wrote in a Snapchat message that included a photo of her and a classmate raising their middle fingers. Levy shared the message with about 250 friends on the app, allowing him to post content that disappears after 24 hours. School officials learned of Levy’s message after a student took a screenshot and shared it with her mother. The school suspended Levy from cheerleading for a year for violating the team’s rules against “foul language and inappropriate gestures” and posting “any negative information about cheerleaders, cheerleaders or coaches posted on the Internet.”

Levy, through his parents and endorsed by the American Civil Liberties Union, south of the school district, and the student was allowed to return to the cheer squad. However, the school district appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit. The court also sided with the student, noting that Levy sent her Snapchat message while she was off campus, arguing that suspending her violated the First Amendment. The case finally reached the Supreme Court.

In its ruling Wednesday, the court said it did not intend to establish a broad First Amendment rule about what is considered “off-campus” speech or when First Amendment standards yield off-campus to a school’s special need. to avoid a substantial disruption of learning activities or to intervene when bullying occurs.

“This had the potential to be a devastating decision for students,” LoMonte said. The Supreme Court “had the opportunity to say that social media is a game changer that requires rewriting the rules of the First Amendment, and they refused to do so.”

Among the factors that limited the school’s authority in this matter, the court noted, Levy “broadcast his speech via a personal cell phone to an audience comprised of his private circle of Snapchat friends. These characteristics of his speech, while risking transmission to the school itself, however … they diminish the school’s interest in punishing BL’s statement. ” Levy also did not identify the school or specific individuals in his social media post, and the Supreme Court said there is no evidence that his Snapchat message substantially disrupted the school, the court said.

Judge Clarence Thomas, in his only dissent, said most did not consider whether schools will often have more authority over speeches posted on social media. Since off-campus speech shared on social media can quickly reach “countless” people, “it will often have a greater proximate tendency to harm the school environment than an in-person off-campus conversation,” he wrote.

The much-watched case centers on a landmark 1969 Supreme Court decision that said students do not lose their First Amendment rights when they enter school property. The case, known as Tinker v. However, Des Moines found that educators can suppress student speech on campus if it causes a substantial disruption to the school.

Levy’s case centered on whether Tinker’s ruling applied to off-campus speech. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals had previously ruled that the precedent, set more than half a century ago during the Vietnam War, did not apply to off-campus speech.

Judge Stephen Breyer, who wrote the majority opinion, said that while the court agrees that the school district unfairly punished Levy for his Snapchat post, it disagreed with the reasoning provided by the appeals court.

“We do not believe that the special features that give schools an additional license to regulate student speech always disappear when a school regulates speech that takes place off campus,” Breyer wrote. “The regulatory interests of the school remain important in some off-campus circumstances.”

The Pennsylvania school district asked the Supreme Court to hear the case. in a lyrics, school officials said the ubiquity of smartphones, social media and the rise of remote learning during the coronavirus pandemic has blurred the lines between on-campus and off-campus discourse. Schools have long regulated off-campus speech, and the Third Circuit’s decision would undermine its ability to address harassment, abuse, and other disruptive speech that occurs outside of school.

David Cole, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, told Supreme Court justices in April that extending Tinker’s decision to include an off-campus speech “would require students to carry the school on their backs in such a way. effective in terms of rights of expression wherever they go. ” (PDF) Cole also said it would interfere with parenting at home. “For young people, the ability to express their emotions to their friends without fear of school censorship may be the most important freedom of all,” he told the judges.

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