Does the First Amendment Protect a Child’s Social Media Posts About School?
Jun 29, 2021 | Written by: Share|
The United States Supreme Court chose to hear and rule on whether public schools can discipline students for the content of social media posts made while off campus. The case stemmed from an incident where a Pennsylvania teenager, Brandi Levy, became upset and posted a profanity-laced rant on social media stating “F— school, f— softball, f— cheer, f— everything” after learning she had been cut from the varsity cheerleading team, but made the junior varsity one instead. A screenshot of Ms. Levy’s post was shared with other members of the cheerleading squad, and the post eventually reached one of the coaches. After discussing the matter with the school principal, the coaches decided that because the post used profanity in connection with a school extracurricular activity, it violated team and school rules. As a result, Ms. Levy was suspended from the junior varsity (JV) cheerleading squad for the upcoming year.
In its decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the school violated Ms. Levy’s First Amendment rights when it suspended her from the JV squad. They determined the post was made outside of school hours and away from the school’s campus. Ms. Levy did not “identify the school in her posts or target any member of the school community with vulgar or abusive language.” It was also determined she “transmitted her speech through a personal cellphone, to an audience consisting of her private circle of Snapchat friends. These factors thus do not favor punishment by a school for the speech uttered.” As such, the Court determined that Ms. Levy’s First Amendment rights were violated.
It should be noted that the Court, in its opinion, stated that not all types of behavior are protected by the First Amendment. Looking to the research performed and as set forth by the parties in their briefs, activities that do not receive the protection of the First Amendment include: “serious or severe bullying or harassment targeting particular individuals; threats aimed at teachers or other students; the failure to follow rules concerning lessons, the writing of papers, the use of computers, or participation in other online school activities; and breaches of school security devices, including material maintained within school computers.”
This newly decided case demonstrates that students’ speech is not always censored simply because they attend a particular school, but there are limitations to the protection afforded. Parents and their school-age children should be aware of this.
Tracy B. Bussel, Esq., is a partner at Gebhardt & Kiefer, PC, and practices primarily in the areas of employment law, civil rights litigation, general liability, insurance defense, and the representation of public entities. Contact Ms. Bussel at 908-735-5161 or via email.
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