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SCOTUS: Cheerleader's Profane Post Is Free Speech

Ruling in favor of Brandi Levy could have 'significant ramifications'
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 23, 2021 11:43 AM CDT

(Newser) – The Supreme Court has ruled in favor of a cheerleader suspended from her high school team for using a vulgar word on Snapchat, thereby extending its protection of student speech to social media, the Wall Street Journal reports. "F--- school f--- softball f--- cheer f--- everything," a 14-year-old Brandi Levy had written in a weekend post showing her and a friend giving the middle finger after she failed to make her school's varsity cheerleading team in May 2017. That meant the then-sophomore from Mahanoy City, Pa., would spend another year on the junior varsity team—but the cheer coach saw a screenshot of the post, and Levy was suspended for the year in retaliation, per the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. More:

  • The Mahanoy School District claimed the post violated school rules against foul language and unsportsmanlike conduct. Federal district and appeals courts found the move violated Levy's free speech rights, but offered contrasting reasons for the decisions.

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  • The federal district judge found the post wasn't disruptive of school, as did one of three judges of the Third Circuit US Court of Appeals. The others stated the school didn't have authority to discipline students for off-campus speech. The district argued it needed authority over that speech in order to prevent cyberbullying. An attorney for Levy argued such harassing speech is already prohibited.
  • With a 8-1 vote, the Supreme Court rejected the school district's argument that it did have that authority as needed "to discipline speech that disrupts the campus or harms other students," per the Post-Gazette. Justice Stephen Breyer's majority opinion reads in part, "It might be tempting to dismiss (the student's) words as unworthy of the robust First Amendment protections discussed herein. But sometimes it is necessary to protect the superfluous in order to preserve the necessary."
  • Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, noting students "who are active in extracurricular programs have a greater potential, by virtue of their participation, to harm those programs."
  • Steve Vladeck of the University of Texas School of Law tells CNN that "the line between the off-campus speech that schools can and can't regulate is less than clear" but "the fact that there is a line will have significant ramifications for just about all public school administrators."
  • Levy, now 18, is a freshman at Bloomsburg University.
(Read more US Supreme Court stories.)

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