PHILADELPHIA - In a landmark decision, a federal appeals court ruled today that public schools cannot censor students’ off-campus speech based on a fear of disruption of school activities. In a case argued by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, the federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Mahanoy Area School District in Schuylkill County violated the First Amendment free speech rights of a student when it removed her from the cheerleading team for using an expletive on the social media platform Snapchat to describe her frustration with the team while off campus. A federal judge reinstated her to the team in September 2017 shortly after she filed a lawsuit.
The appeals court unanimously agreed that the school violated the First Amendment, and two of the three sitting judges also ruled that public schools do not have the power to discipline students for off-campus speech even if the speech causes or is likely to cause a disruption on campus. Lawyers at the ACLU of Pennsylvania consider it the most expansive ruling on students’ off-campus speech rights in the country.
“Our client was out of school, on her own time, and not involved in a school activity when she made the Snapchat post, and the school went well beyond its power in disciplining her for her speech,” said Sara Rose, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, who argued the case before the appeals court. “We are grateful that the court understood that the same free speech principles apply whether a student is kicked off the cheerleading team or suspended from school for expression that occurs off-campus.”
The student, who is identified by her initials B.L. in court documents, was in tenth grade when the case started in 2017 and graduated this year.
The post for which B.L. was punished featured a photo of her and a friend at a convenience store holding up their middle fingers with the text “fuck school fuck softball fuck cheer fuck everything” superimposed on the photo. B.L. posted the Snap on a Saturday and made it available only to her Snapchat friends.
“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,” said Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “Schools have historically used the ‘disruption’ standard to punish students for criticizing what’s happening at school. This decision clarifies that young people enjoy full First Amendment protection when outside of school.”
The plaintiff is represented by Sara Rose and Mary Catherine Roper of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, Molly Tack-Hooper, formerly of the ACLU of Pennsylvania and now of the ACLU of Washington, and Arleigh Helfer and Theresa E. Loscalzo of Schnader, Harrison, Segal & Lewis. More information about the case, including a copy of today’s opinion, is available at aclupa.org/BL.