Judiciary

Supreme Court sides with cheerleader in case targeting students’ First Amendment rights

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In an 8-1 vote, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of cheerleader Brandi Levy last week regarding the First Amendment rights of students when it comes to off-campus speech. In 2017, Levy, a ninth grade student at the time, did not make her varsity cheering squad. As a result, she posted on Snapchat a post that contained vulgar language and gestures. The school suspended her from participating on the junior varsity team for a whole year.  

Levy took the case to district court where she prevailed. The Third Circuit affirmed the lower court’s decision. The case then made it to the Supreme Court, which just recently offered a ruling.

The Court concluded that the punishment violated Levy’s First Amendment rights to free speech. The Justices did note that schools have a special interest in regulating some off campus speech, but in this case, the speech did not fall into that category. Levy’s speech did not fall outside the original protections the First Amendment offers, and there was no substantial interference in, or disruption of, the school’s efforts to maintain cohesion on the cheering team.  

Justice Breyer filed the opinion of the Court. Relying on Tinker v. Des Moines, Justice Breyer acknowledged that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech of expression” even “at the school house gate.” While there are some restrictions schools can place on language, the Court states that one must consider when, where, and how Levy spoke. 

Her speech was outside of school hours, off campus, it did not identify the school and it did not target any individual. She used her private cell phone and transmitted the post to her private friends. Justice Breyer also notes that “when it comes to political or religious speech that occurs outside school or a school program or activity, the school will have a heavy burden to justify intervention.”

Because this decision came from the Supreme Court, it covers all public schools in the United States, about 50 million students. It is the first time in over 50 years that the Court has ruled on the topic. The Court did leave some room open for future cases to define what type of intervention schools can take when it comes to punishment for school-related, off-campus activities

Levy expressed gratitude for the Court’s decision. “The school went too far, and I’m glad that the Supreme Court agrees,” she stated after the decision was released. 

About Sophie Cohen

Sophie Cohen, of Falmouth, is a policy intern with the Maine Policy Institute. She is a graduate of The University of Maine where she holds a degree in Political Science. In the fall, Sophie will be attending Maine Law with the hopes of becoming a criminal and family law attorney.

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