WILKES-BARRE – A federal district court today halted school officials’ attempt to discipline a student at Mahanoy Area High School in Schuylkill County for a social media post she published while off campus on a weekend.
The student published a post, or a “snap,” to the popular photo-sharing app Snapchat that involved a photo of her and a friend with their middle fingers extended and the caption, “fuck school fuck softball fuck cheer fuck everything.” Although the student shared the snap only with her Snapchat friends, a photo of the snap made its way to school officials, who deemed the snap “negative,” “disrespectful,” and “demeaning” and objected to the use of profanity. The school removed the student from the junior varsity cheerleading squad as punishment for the post.
The plaintiff—a fifteen-year-old sophomore who is identified in the complaint by her initials, B.L., because she is a minor—sued the school district with the assistance of lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania after the school denied repeated requests by B.L. and her lawyers to reverse the punishment.
“This was a clear case of overreach by this school,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “A public school’s power to discipline a student does not include the power to punish students for swearing off campus.”
Judge A. Richard Caputo of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania issued a temporary restraining order against the school hours after the lawsuit was filed. On October 2, the court held an evidentiary hearing and heard testimony from B.L. and one of the school’s cheerleading coaches.
In light of the evidence presented at the hearing, the court ruled that the plaintiff was likely to succeed in her lawsuit. Today’s order prohibits the school from continuing its discipline of the student for her speech and reinstates her to the cheerleading team until the judge issues a final decision in the case.
In 2011, the United States Appeals Court for the Third Circuit ruled in two cases brought by the ACLU of Pennsylvania that schools could not discipline students for social media posts created off-campus when the posts do not substantially disrupt school activities.
“If B.L. could be kicked off the cheerleading team for blowing off steam in a private social media post, then that would mean that schools have the power to control what students say on their own time. That’s a very scary prospect,” said Molly Tack-Hooper, staff attorney at the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “Luckily, the First Amendment doesn’t allow that.”