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Supreme Court Considers Student’s Speech Rights Outside of School


Brandi Levy poses outside of her high school in Pennsylvania. She tried out for the cheerleading team a number of years ago, prompting a social media post that will now be discussed by the U.S. Supreme Court. (Danna Singer/Handout via REUTERS)
Supreme Court Considers Student’s Speech Rights Outside of School
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The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments Wednesday in a closely watched case involving a teenager’s freedom of speech on social media.

In 2017, when Brandi Levy was 14, she wanted to be a cheerleader at her school in Pennsylvania. She competed for a place on the team. But, she was not chosen for the best team. Instead, she was told she would be on the second-best team.

She was upset, and while she was at a store close to her school, she took a picture of herself making a sign with her finger that is offensive in the United States. She then posted the photo on the social media service Snapchat, and also added text with a bad word.

Levy was mad that she was not chosen for the top team and expressed her anger with the post. While the post could only be seen for one day, adults who ran the school saw it. So did a number of students.

The school punished Levy by banning her from the team for one year. It said Levy’s Snapchat message upset other students and disrupted classes. The adults who ran the cheerleading team said Levy broke team rules and hurt the cohesion of the team.

Levy and her parents wanted her to be put back on the cheerleading team. They took their case against the school to court. They got legal support from The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a civil rights group. A lower court judge ordered the school to let her back onto the team.

The school appealed that decision to The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia. But the U.S. appeals court said the school could not punish Levy because she was off campus.

The school, however, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The school said it was permitted to punish Levy because of an almost 50-year-old decision. In 1969, the Supreme Court said students could be punished for disruptive speech.

After the case is presented in Washington, D.C., the court should make its ruling by June.

Levy is now 18 and in college. Thinking back on how she felt four years ago, she said the punishment felt wrong. She said she thought her action was “small,” and she was only expressing her feelings. She said recently that she did not bully or harass anyone in her message.

The court ruling will set an important example for speech.

Schools say if the court rules for Levy, it will make their job more difficult. School leaders say it is already hard to keep students from making disruptive statements on social media. These incidents, they argue, most often happen outside of school hours and while students are at home, but they affect the student body.

In a paper the school submitted for the case, it asked where school property ends in the world of internet messaging. If a student sends harassing emails to school accounts from home “where did the speech happen?”

A representative from a national group of school leaders warned against giving students the freedom to send disruptive messages even if they are away from school.

President Joe Biden’s administration has expressed support for the school’s side of the case.

The ACLU and other organizations, however, say that if the school wins the case, it will make it harder for students to express themselves. The ACLU said that if Levy loses the case, it will make it easier for schools to follow and watch their students all the time.

Sara Rose is a lawyer with the ACLU and is working on the case. She said schools can do things to protect students that do not involve “punishing kids for speech that they engage in off campus.”

I’m Dan Friedell.

Andrew Chung wrote this story for Reuters. Dan Friedell adapted it for Learning English. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.

Would you restrict student speech made off-campus? Tell us in the Comments Section and visit our Facebook page.

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Words in This Story

disrupt –v. to cause (something) to be unable to continue in the normal way : to interrupt the normal progress or activity of (something)

cohesion –n. a condition in which people or things are closely united

campus –n. the area and buildings around a university, college, school, etc.

bully –v. to frighten, hurt, or threaten (a smaller or weaker person) : to act like a bully toward (someone)

harass –v. to annoy or bother (someone) in a constant or repeated way

engage in –v. to do something

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