School administrators, teachers, students, parents, and other interested observers are paying close attention to the case of Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., a K-12 student-speech case to be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on April 28.
Among those interested observers are Mary Beth and John Tinker, the siblings who were key litigants in the Supreme Court’s landmark student-speech ruling more than 50 years ago in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969).
In Tinker, the Supreme Court ruled that Mary Beth and John Tinker had a First Amendment right to wear black peace armbands to their middle and high schools respectively as a form of protest. The Court ruled that public school students don’t “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech and expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
According to the Court in Tinker, in very narrow circumstances, public school officials can regulate student speech – when it causes a substantial disruption of school activities or invades the rights of others. This narrow exception applies because student-speech rights must be applied “in light of the special characteristics of the school environment.”
But now, school officials in the Mahanoy Area School District in Pennsylvania argue that they can discipline a high school student for an off-campus social media Snapchat post because it somehow might cause a substantial disruption. Student B.L. posted a Snapchat one Saturday afternoon expressing consternation that she did not advance from the junior varsity to the varsity cheerleading squad. “F--- cheer, f--- everything” she posted.
School officials responded by kicking her off the team for a year, a draconian punishment for speech that didn’t even take place at school and was the mere venting of frustration.
A federal district court and the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals have ruled in favor of the student. The Mahanoy school district appealed to the Supreme Court.
The Tinkers filed an amicus brief written by legendary First Amendment attorney Robert Corn-Revere and his colleague Caesar Kalinowski IV. The brief warns that a Supreme Court decision in favor of the school district and censorship “would empower school authorities to ban a wide swath of speech on matters that concern young people, including politics, religion, school administration, or anything else that might cause controversy.”
The Tinkers know the case is important because it is the first time the Supreme Court will address the First Amendment rights of public school students engaging in social media expression. They say the case is vitally important to the future of student rights.
“It's important because, for one thing, just from a human-rights standpoint, youth deserve to express themselves and their feelings,” Mary Beth Tinker told the Free Speech Center. “And for the Court to damage that right would be especially harmful right now, when society needs the input of young people in order to change policies that work against their interests.”
John Tinker hopes the Supreme Court will “constrain the expanded schoolyard in some fashion” and require that before school officials can restrict student’s social media speech it must be “linked to the school in some relatively obvious and direct way.”
He warned that “doing otherwise would be to expect the principals to be responsible for far too much beyond their educational responsibilities.”
David L. Hudson Jr. is a professor at Belmont University College of Law who writes and speaks regularly on First Amendment issues. He is the author of Let the Students Speak: A History of the Fight for Free Expression in American Schools (Beacon Press, 2011), and of First Amendment: Freedom of Speech(2012). Hudson is also the author of a 12-part lecture series, Freedom of Speech: Understanding the First Amendment (2018), and a 24-part lecture series, The American Constitution 101 (2019).
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