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U.S. Supreme Court Rules that School Cannot Punish Student for Vulgar Social Media Posts

June 29, 2021

On June 23, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Mahoney Area School District (the “District”) v. B.L., et al (the “Student”), 594 U.S. ___ (2021). The District suspended the Student from the cheerleading team for an entire year because of two messages she posted to her Snapchat. One post read “F*ck school f*ck softball f*ck cheer f*ck everything.” The second read “love how me and another student get told we need a year of JV before we make varsity but that doesn’t matter to anyone else?” She posted these messages on the Student’s personal Snapchat Story. Snapchat is a social media platform where users send images or videos that will disappear after a brief period. When a user posts to their Story, only the user’s chosen friends can view it for a 24-hour period. The Student and her parents sued the District, alleging that it violated her First Amendment rights. The Court agreed.

The First Amendment applies to this case because the District is a publicly funded school district. Thus, student speech is entitled to First Amendment protection from public school regulation/punishment. Generally, schools can regulate student speech if it is: “lewd” or “vulgar”, promotes illegal drug use, could be perceived as bearing the seal of school approval (i.e., a school newspaper), or if it causes a substantial disruption to the classroom or other school activities. The Court held that a public school may regulate a student’s off-campus speech if there is a significant interest to do so. The Court listed the following examples of when this may occur: bullying, harassment, threats at teachers or students, writing papers, using computers, remote learning, or other school-sponsored online activities. However, these are only examples.

The Supreme Court determined that the District did not have a significant interest to punish the Student. First, even though she used vulgar language, the posts amounted to criticism of the school. These posts did not rise to “fighting words” or “obscenity.” The First Amendment is designed to protect even hurtful speech. Second, the Court considered when, where, and how the Student spoke. The Student posted her messages outside of school hours and outside of school grounds. Only the Student’s private circle of Snapchat friends saw the messages. The Student posted the messages through her personal cell phone, and they did not specifically identify the District by name.

The Court did not ignore the District’s reasons for wanting to regulate the speech. While a public school has a general interest to teach students good manners and to punish them for using vulgar language, the Student spoke outside school and on her own time. Second, there was no evidence that these posts caused a substantial disruption to the school or the cheerleading team.

If you have any questions about this decision or its implications, please contact Jay Fleming or any other member of Clark Hill’s Education Group.

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