Supremes side with cursing cheerleader in campus free speech case
Image via AP.

Supreme Court of the United States
Justice Clarence Thomas was the sole dissenter. 

The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a Pennsylvania public school wrongly suspended a student from cheerleading over a vulgar social media post she made after she didn’t qualify for the varsity team.

The court voted 8-1 in favor of Brandi Levy, who was a 14-year-old high school freshman when she expressed her disappointment over not making the varsity cheerleading squad with a string of curse words and a raised middle finger on Snapchat.

Levy, of Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania, was not in school when she made her post, but she was suspended from cheerleading activities for a year anyway. In an opinion by Justice Stephen Breyer, the high court ruled that the suspension violated Levy’s First Amendment freedom of speech rights.

But the justices did not foreclose schools from disciplining students for what they say off campus. An earlier federal appeals court ruling in this case would have barred public schools from punishing off-campus speech.

Despite ruling in Levy’s favor, Breyer wrote that “we do not believe the special characteristics that give schools additional license to regulate student speech always disappear when a school regulates speech that takes place off campus. The school’s regulatory interests remain significant in some off-campus circumstances.”

The case drew extra interest at a time of remote learning because of the coronavirus pandemic and a rising awareness of the harmful effects of online bullying.

The case arose from Levy’s posts, one of which pictured her and a friend with raised middle fingers and included repeated use of a vulgarity to complain that she had been left off the varsity cheerleading squad.

“F——— school f——— softball f——— cheer f——— everything,” she wrote near the end of her freshman year, from a local convenience store and on a Saturday. Now 18, Levy recently finished her first year of college.

Levy’s parents filed a federal lawsuit after the cheerleading coach suspended her from the junior varsity team for a year. Lower courts ruled in Levy’s favor, and she was reinstated.

The school district appealed to the Supreme Court after the broad appellate ruling that said off-campus student speech was beyond schools’ authority to punish.

The dispute is the latest in a line of a cases that began with Tinker v. Des Moines, the Vietnam-era case of a high school in Des Moines, Iowa, that suspended students who wore armbands to protest the war. In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court sided with the students, declaring they don’t “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

The court also held then that schools retained the authority to restrict speech that would disrupt the school environment.

Justice Clarence Thomas was the sole dissenter.

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Material published with permission of the Associated Press. 

Associated Press


One comment

  • Ron Ogden

    June 23, 2021 at 1:58 pm

    To no one’s surprise, FLAPOL leaves out any detail of Justice Thomas’ correct dissent. I’ll help by providing this clip from CNBC:

    “Thomas explained that since speech made through social media can be seen and shared on campus, “it often will have a greater proximate tendency to harm the school environment than will an off-campus in-person conversation.”

    He also wrote that the majority failed to explain why it breaks from a prior rule that schools can regulate off-campus speech “so long as it has a proximate tendency to harm the school, its faculty or students, or its programs.”

    The “foundation” of the majority’s ruling “is untethered from anything stable,” Thomas wrote, “and courts (and schools) will almost certainly be at a loss as to what exactly the Court’s opinion today means.”

    To reiterate, Justice Thomas is correct. Foul language whispered between friends behind the garage is one thing; foul language about a community institution that remains alive for all time, as social media often does, is quite another.

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