U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Student’s Off-Campus Free Speech Rights

The September 1, 2020 Trending Law Blog post discussed how the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., 964 F.3d 170 (2020), upheld a public school student’s First Amendment rights based on social media posts she made off school grounds, after school hours, and without school resources.  The court found that the student’s free speech rights were violated by the school’s decision to suspend her from the school’s junior varsity cheerleading squad because of posts she made to Snapchat.

The case was subsequently appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States by the school district, which asked the Court to consider whether public school officials may regulate speech that would materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school when the student’s speech occurs off campus. The Supreme Court granted the petition for certiorari and, in a decision rendered on June 23, 2021, held that while schools may have an interest in regulating some off-campus speech, the facts here were not sufficient to overcome the student’s free speech rights.

In reaching this 8-1 decision, the Court agreed that B.L.’s First Amendment rights were violated when the school suspended her from the cheerleading squad.  The Supreme Court found, among other things, that (1) her posts were entitled to First Amendment protection because they reflected criticism of a community she belonged to; (2) her posts were made outside of school, outside of school hours, did not identify her school, did not target any members of the school community, and were made to a limited audience with her personal device; and (3) the student’s posts were made under circumstances where the school did not stand in loco parentis; and (4) the student’s posts were not so disruptive of school activities to outweigh the student’s interest in free expression.

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For any questions relating to this article, please contact Robert B. Nussbaum, Esq. at Saiber LLC.