Do students have free speech rights that protect their non-school-related social media posts? Or can schools discipline students for violating school rules during their free time?
The question is currently before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The plaintiff is Brandi L, who made a profanity-laced Snapchat post when she was a ninth grader in Pennsylvania.
A talented cheerleader, she had been on junior varsity and tried out for the varsity squad. Two days after the tryouts, after finding out she didn’t make varsity, Brandi posted a picture of herself and a friend holding up their middle fingers. The caption used a curse word four times and generally expressed her displeasure with cheerleading, school and “everything.”
According to Reuters, the photo was visible on Snapchat for 24 hours, as was a second post that questioned another girl’s selection for the varsity squad. According to the Mahoney Area School District, some students and other cheerleaders were offended by the post and the controversy was disruptive to classes.
As a result of the Snapchat post, the school kicked Brandi off of the junior varsity cheerleading squad for a year. The coaches said she had broken various school rules and undermined team cohesion.
Do students have free speech rights?
Yes, although they are somewhat more limited than those of an adult citizen. Although they have these rights in principle, students are not allowed to engage in speech or other conduct that could “substantially disrupt” the education process.
Court finds that the district had no authority to discipline Brandi
After her suspension from the team, Brandi and her parents, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, sued the school district. They were seeking two things: reinstatement to the team and a ruling that Brandi’s First Amendment rights had been violated.
The trial judge found that Brandi’s Snapchat posts had not been disruptive enough to warrant the punishment and ordered her reinstatement. The school district appealed. The federal appeals court found further that school officials do not have the authority to regulate off-campus speech by students.
The school district has argued that off-campus speech is capable of disrupting education and that the internet has blurred the lines between on-campus and off-campus behavior. It has also argued that a ruling in Brandi’s favor would make it harder to discipline kids for harassment and bullying that take place outside of school hours.
Brandi and the ACLU argue that authorizing schools to discipline students for off-campus speech would allow them to surveil and censor young people everywhere they go.
The Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling by the end of June.
What California parents should know
In California, there are certain protections for students when it comes to expulsion and suspension. If you receive notification that your child will be removed from his or her school for a violation of the law or the school district’s policies, you have certain rights. These include the right to defend your child at a fair hearing, due process hearing or, in the case of a student eligible for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a Section 504 plan, a manifestation determination hearing. Leigh Law Group specializes in not only these education codes but in all of the procedures and hearings around them. If parents attend any of these hearings or meetings alone, it creates a record that is difficult to fight later. It is beneficial to first retain representation.