On Wednesday, the Supreme Court will be hearing a case that started with a few swears shared on one teen’s Snapchat account, before turning into a major suit that tests the limits of what students are allowed to say on their campus.
At the center of the case is Brandi Levy, who in ninth grade let loose on the platform after learning she didn’t make the varsity cheerleading squad. Compared to the sort of stuff teens get caught pulling on social media now, Levy’s Snap was relatively benign: just a photo of her and a friend flipping off the camera, overlaid with the caption “fuck school fuck softball fuck cheer fuck everything.”
But instead of vanishing into the Snapchat ether, it wound up in the hands of one of the school’s two cheerleading coaches after her daughter saw it on her timeline. Levy ended up being suspended from her school’s junior varsity team for the year, which then led to her family suing the school district. Their argument at the time was that these messages—vulgar as they were—were sent on the weekend, and well outside of Levy’s campus.
It turns out the Third Circuit agreed. This past summer, a federal appeals court ruled that the school’s attempt to control Levy’s off-campus speech constituted a First Amendment violation. The school, in its defense, argued that Levy waived her free speech rights by agreeing to certain cheerleading squad rules, like “[avoiding] foul language and inappropriate gestures,” and having “respect” for “coaches [and] teachers.”
The courts didn’t see it that way. “[These rules] would not cover a weekend post to Snapchat unconnected with any game or school event and before the cheerleading season had even begun,” wrote one of the judges overseeing the case. “It is hard to believe a reasonable student would understand that by agreeing to [them], she was waiving all rights to malign the school once safely off-campus and in the world at large.”
At the core of this ruling is a 1969 case—Tinker v. Des Moines—that centered on an Iowa public school that suspended five students who wore armbands to protest the Vietnam war. The students (and their parents) filed suit against the school, and their case ended up in front of the Supreme Court. In a landmark decision, the court sided with the students, on the grounds that they don’t “shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate.”
The school district fired back that the 52-year-old ruling doesn’t apply to Levy’s case. Back then, the school argued, the lines between “on” and “off” campus were clearly delineated—but those lines are becoming more blurred by the day, particularly when remote learning became the national norm.
Appealing to the Supreme Court last month, the district wrote that the advent of social media makes it “far easier for students’ off-campus messages to instantly reach a wide audience of classmates and dominate the on-campus environment.”
“Wherever student speech originates, schools should be able to treat students alike when their speech is directed at the school,” the school wrote. The Biden administration later sided with the school. The ACLU didn’t. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear both their sides on April 28th.