Appeals court says school can't punish student for off-campus comments

July 1, 2020
Judges rule that the Mahanoy Area (Pa.) School District violated a cheerleader's free speech rights when it punished her for a message posted on social media.

A Pennsylvania high school violated the rights of a cheerleader when it punished her for posting an expletive-laced message on social media, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The Allentown Morning Call reports that the Mahanoy Area School District in Schuylkill County violated the student’s free speech rights when it removed her from the junior varsity cheerleading squad for using expletives on Snapchat to describe her frustration over not making the varsity squad.

The American Civil Liberties Union pursued the case on behalf the student, who was in 10th grade when she filed the lawsuit in 2017.

“This is an important decision because it recognizes that students who are outside of school enjoy full free speech rights, not the diluted rights they have inside the schoolhouse,” says Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

The cheerleader, identified only as B.L, had posted a picture of herself and a friend with their middle fingers up and and a message that included expletives aimed at the school, the team and “everything.” It was available only to the student’s friends until one of them shared the post with the cheerleading coach.

That led to the girl being suspended from the junior varsity squad and. She was reinstated after a lawsuit was filed and a temporary restraining order was issued. A lower court ruled in the cheerleader’s favor, and the district appealed.

Under a 1969 court decision, students aren’t entitled to the same free speech rights at school as they are outside of school. On campus, they can be disciplined for speech that creates a substantial disruption.

“Schools have historically used the ‘disruption’ standard to punish students for criticizing what’s happening at school,” Walczak says. “This decision clarifies that young people enjoy full First Amendment protection when outside of school.”

Two of the three judges on the appellate panel found that public schools do not have the power to discipline students for off-campus speech, though it might cause a disruption on campus.

“After reviewing the line separating on- from off-campus speech, we hold B.L.‘s speech falls on the off-campus side,” Judge Cheryl Ann Krause wrote in the decision.

The Mahanoy district argued it was enforcing a school rule that called for students to “have respect for your school, coaches, teachers, other cheerleaders and teams,” specifically when at games, fundraisers, and other events.

The court didn’t accept that argument, saying: “It is hard to believe a reasonable student would understand that by agreeing to the Respect Rule, she was waiving all rights to malign the school once safely off campus and in the world at large.”

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