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Teen Vented on Snapchat, Now Is at the Supreme Court

Brandi Levy's profanity about cheerleading is seen as huge free-speech case
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 26, 2021 10:35 AM CDT

(Newser) – On Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case relatable to anyone who's ever vented some choice words on a bad day. What sets this one apart? It involves a young cheerleader's profanity—and it just happens to be "the most momentous case in more than five decades involving student speech," Yale law professor Justin Driver (author of a book on the subject) tells the Washington Post. Coverage:

  • The incident: In May 2017, then 14-year-old Brandi Levy was ticked after being told she'd have to spend another year on the JV cheerleading squad rather than moving up to varsity, explains Vox. She posted an image on Snapchat of her and a friend raising their middle fingers above her caption of "f--- school f--- softball f--- cheer f--- everything."
  • The fallout: Like all Snapchat posts, it disappeared within 24 hours. But someone took a screenshot, school authorities got wind of it, and Brandi was suspended from the cheerleading squad. "I was a 14-year-old kid," Brandi, now a college freshman, tells the AP. "I was upset, I was angry. Everyone, every 14-year-old kid speaks like that at one point."

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  • The lawsuit: Brandi's family filed suit over her suspension with help from the ACLU, reports Reuters. Did the school overreach and impede on her right to free speech? Lower courts have wrestled with the question, and Supreme Court justices now get their chance in Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L.
  • Precedent: The big case on this dates back to 1969. In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the Supreme Court sided with students suspended because they wore black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. Students don't "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate," the court ruled. But the ruling also declared that schools can punish students for speech that "would materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school." Courts have been sussing out the gray area since.
  • Modern complications: Now factor in ubiquitous phones and social media, which make the idea of a "schoolhouse gate" almost quaint. Levi's former school district argues that schools must have enough leeway to punish cyberbullying or, say, a student who publishes answers to a test, per the Post. But the ACLU argues that too much leeway is a dangerous thing.
  • The challenge: In his Vox post, Ian Millhiser writes that a "sensible" court will have "to construct a new set of legal rules that recognizes that off-campus speech is distinct from on-campus speech, but also that off-campus speech can sometimes impact the school community in ways that schools need to be equipped to handle." And that, he adds, "will not be an easy task."
(Read more free speech stories.)

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