Tuesday, March 09, 2021

Student Speech Off-Campus

I have long been a believer in the concept that what students say and do, away from school and not at school activities, is not a legitimate concern for school officials.  Sure, students may say things that might become issues at school, but I'm not convinced that that's sufficient reason to violate a student's First Amendment rights.  (My school administration and I have disagreed on this.)  I have no doubt you could create a scenario wherein I might have to backtrack on this view, but for the vast majority of cases, schools should focus on what students do at school (and at school activities).

How about this case?

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments later this term in a case that pits free speech advocates against public school officials who seek to punish students for certain off-campus social media posts. Last week, the Biden Justice Department entered the fray with an amicus brief that opposes the free speech side.

The case is Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. In 2017, a high school freshman and junior varsity cheerleading team member took to the social media site Snapchat in order to complain about her failure to make the varsity cheerleading squad. The student—known by the initials B.L. in court filings because she is a minor—posted a picture of herself and one of her friends with their middle fingers raised accompanied by the text "fuck school fuck softball fuck cheer fuck everything." She was suspended from the team as a result of that post.

B.L. and her parents, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, are now battling the school in court. They argue that the First Amendment flatly prevents school officials from punishing students for such entirely off-campus speech. "In a weekend comment in an evanescent Snapchat message," B.L.'s legal team argued in a court filing, "B.L. swore in expressing her disappointment at not making the varsity team to her friends. The notion that a school can discipline a student for that kind of spontaneous, non-threatening, non-harassing expression is contrary to our First Amendment tradition, and finds no support in [the Supreme Court's] student speech cases."

The 3rd Circuit ruled in BL's favor.  Enter the current administration:

According to the Biden Justice Department, while some off-campus speech deserves constitutional protection, the 3rd Circuit went too far, unfairly hamstringing school officials, who, the government maintained, require significant leeway when it comes to regulating and punishing student speech. "When the student's off-campus speech targets an extracurricular athletic program in which the student participates," the brief argued, "such speech might properly be regarded as school speech that is potentially subject to discipline by school officials if, for instance, it intentionally targets a feature that is essential to or inherent in the athletic program itself."

It doesn't surprise me that my views are at odds with those of the current administration.

That her parents opted to sue instead of having her write an apology letter to whomever for her public foul behavior and language tells me all I need to know about that family.  I wouldn't want a little whiner like her on my team.  However, she wasn't in her school uniform, she wasn't at a school function, she wasn't at school.  She was whining that she didn't (do well enough to) make the varsity team.  I don't see legitimate grounds for the school to penalize her.  

I also wonder if she'll get past cheer tryouts next year--might not be good enough to make the team.

Update, 3/14/21:  What is it about cheerleaders and their moms?  You'd think cheerleading is the most important thing on the planet:

A Pennsylvania woman is facing misdeameanor charges after allegedly sending "deep fake" naked photos and videos of her teenage daughter's cheerleader rivals in an effort to get them kicked off the team or convince them to kill themselves.

1 comment:

Ellen K said...

I have a couple of friends who sponsored cheerleading and drill team (dance team) and those Mom's are nuts. Full disclosure, my daughter was on drill team for 2 years b/c she loves dancing and is very good at it. Her degree was in Dance and her senior choreography piece was a dark dystopian version of drill team in slow motion complete with the head pops and the pasted on smiles. It tells you how deep the scars can go. My daughter called it a dancing sorority with the negatives that implies. In many regards these moms drive these girls to the point of insanity. The cliquishness, the gossip that extends to entire families, is vicious and destroying. It was so bad that after choosing to drop drill team, the director refused to even look at my daughter when she was in the hallway. It comes from the top down. Cheerleaders are the royalty of the school regardless to the demographic make up of the school. And their parents, by association, control a great deal of the social power. In smaller towns it gets worse. I've heard stories that would curl your toes-assaults forgiven, girls transferring, families moving...it can get really toxic.