June 23, 2021

Supreme Court Decides Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L.

On June 23, 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., holding that a Pennsylvania public high school violated a student’s First Amendment rights when it suspended her from the cheerleading team after she criticized her coaches’ decision to place her on the junior varsity cheerleading team rather than the varsity squad.

B.L., a student at Mahanoy Area High School, tried out for the school’s varsity cheer squad. After coaches offered her a position on the junior varsity squad instead, B.L. criticized the coaches’ decision. Using her personal smartphone, B.L. posted photos on Snapchat, a social media platform where users can post photos or videos that disappear after a set time period. One photo showed B.L. and a friend with their middle fingers raised and a profanity-filled caption about cheer. And while only B.L.’s Snapchat “friends” could view the photos, they eventually reached the cheerleading coaches.

That week, the coaches decided to suspend B.L. from the junior varsity cheer squad for a year. The school and school district affirmed the coaches’ decision to suspend her from the team. In response, B.L. filed suit, alleging violation of her First Amendment rights. The district court found for B.L., holding that the school was not authorized to discipline her under Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969), because her speech “had not caused substantial disruption at the school.” The Third Circuit affirmed, but concluded that the Supreme Court’s decision in Tinker was inapplicable to the case because B.L.’s speech had taken place off-campus.

The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the high school violated B.L.’s First Amendment rights because her speech did not bear the special characteristics that grant schools leeway to regulate speech under Tinker and other First Amendment precedent.

In so concluding, the Court explained that, due to the wide variety of off-campus speech students might conceivably engage in, a school’s license to regulate student speech does not always evaporate when it attempts to regulate off-campus speech. Rather, the Court explained that three non-exhaustive features of off-campus speech diminish the strength of the school’s regulatory power. First, a student’s off-campus speech is usually a parental, rather than school-related, responsibility. Second, when coupled with on-campus regulations of speech, off-campus regulations of speech implicate a 24-hour restriction on a student’s ability to speak. And third, because “public schools are the nurseries of democracy,” schools have an interest in safeguarding the marketplace of ideas by protecting a student’s unpopular expression. That interest is especially strong when a student speaks off-campus. Schools, the Court explained, have a strong interest in helping their students understand the aphorism, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Applying those principles to this case, the Court found that B.L. uttered pure, private speech worthy of robust First Amendment protection. And it reasoned that the school’s interests, including teaching good manners, preventing classroom disruption, and preserving team morale, did not outweigh B.L.’s interest in free speech. Any disturbance B.L.’s speech caused, the Court said, was not substantial. Ultimately, the Court explained that its decision was “necessary to protect the superfluous in order to preserve the necessary.”

Justice Breyer delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito, Sotomayor, Kagan, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett joined. Justice Alito filed a concurring opinion, in which Justice Gorsuch joined. Justice Thomas filed a dissenting opinion.

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