Supreme Court Rules on Snapchat and Free Speech: What This Means for Schools

"In this instance, ‘the school’s interest in teaching good manners is not sufficient, in this case, to overcome [the student’s] interest in free expression,” Justice Breyer wrote, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.’"

-"Supreme Court Rules for High-School Cheerleader Brandi Levy

in Free-Speech Case Over Snapchat Post," The Wall Street Journal, 6/23/21

The US Supreme Court just ruled in favor of a high school cheerleader in a landmark free speech case. In case you missed the lead-up to this news, here is a quick synopsis.

In May 2017, Brandy Levy, a Pennsylvania high school sophomore, used the social media platform Snapchat to vent her frustrations over not making the varsity cheerleading squad at her school. She posted, “F— school f— softball f— cheer f— everything,” and included a picture of herself and a friend holding up their middle fingers. Even though this Snap eventually “disappeared,” it really didn’t. It lived on via a screenshot someone took of the post that was eventually seen by the cheerleading coach who suspended Levy from the squad. The reason given was that Levy had violated school rules that included “prohibitions of foul language, unsportsmanlike conduct and disrespect of the school.”

Upset that her First Amendment right to free speech had been violated, Levy and her parents took the issue to court. The case eventually found its way to the US Supreme Court who, in an 8-1 decision, ruled on Wednesday that the school did not have the right to punish Levy for off-campus speech.

Though there is a lot to unpack here, the purpose of this post is to consider what this ruling might mean for schools and their students.

  • First, it’s important to note that the court stated that there are some occasions when schools can reach beyond their four walls to regulate student speech, mentioning bullying and cheating as subject to discipline whether they occur in the classroom or online.

  • Second, this opinion does not extend to online learning. Justice Samuel Alito noted that schools would have authority over what students say while participating in online school and “online school activities.”

  • Finally, it is important to note that while the Supreme Court has a lot of power, that power pales in comparison to the power wielded by private companies like Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube, and more. They have the right to set their own rules about the speech allowed on their platforms and as we have seen (think Trump), they can and do hold users accountable for violating their rules.

What About the Court of Public Opinion?

Regardless of the legal outcome here, one thing no court in the land can change is the impact the post had upon Levy’s digital reputation. Even though, by her own admission, she made a mistake that she seems regretful of, her mistake will live forever online. The Internet will remember her as the girl who used profanity to vent her frustrations. Friends, family, and strangers alike will be free to draw their own conclusions about her character without really knowing her at all.

Free speech may seem free but when it costs one’s digital reputation, the price of free seems very high.

The Internet is a harsh mistress.

Free speech may seem free but when it costs one’s digital reputation, the price of free seems very high. The Internet is a harsh mistress.

What This Means for Schools

Unfortunately, all of this makes it even harder for schools to find that fine line where off-campus speech crosses over into the territory of “some occasions” when schools can regulate it. Bullying is a broad term, especially when it comes to online bullying or cyberbullying, and deciding when and what speech it includes can be tricky.

So for these reasons and more we implore schools to make time to teach their students basic digital citizenship and literacy skills. Such an education may have very well preempted this unfortunate situation and, at the very least, help future students think twice about their own, and their friends, online actions.

Digital literacy is today’s literacy, it is today’s English Language Arts, Civics, and Social Emotional Learning. In a word, it is essential.

For a much more detailed post on this topic, please read "Can Schools Discipline for Off-Campus Speech? The U.S. Supreme Court Weighs In," by Justin W. Patchin of the Cyberbullying Research Center.

Diana Graber is the author of "Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship with Technology" and founder of Cyber Civics and Cyberwise.

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