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United States Supreme Court Hears First Amendment Free Speech Case

United States Supreme Court Hears First Amendment Free Speech Case

On Wednesday, April 28, 2021, the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments on one of the most important student free speech cases since 1969. 

In 1969, the Court heard the seminal case of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District.  The students at issue in Tinker wore black armbands at school to protest the United States’s involvement in the Vietnam War.  The school in turn made a policy that students would be asked to remove such armbands and would suspend any student that refused to take off the armband.  The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the students, and held that students have First Amendment protections regarding their speech at school unless the school could show the speech would “materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school.”

The current case, Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., involves a high school cheerleader who posted an expletive-laden picture and caption on social media after she failed to make the varsity cheerleading team.  School authorities eventually saw the post.  The school deemed this behavior to be disruptive to cheerleader morale and suspended her from the team for the rest of the year. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) brought her case to court claiming the school violated her free speech rights. 

Now, the Supreme Court is faced with the question, “can schools regulate students’ online and off-campus speech.”  During the Justices’ questioning of the parties, the Supreme Court seemed skeptical of crafting some sort of standard for regulating off-campus speech, especially speech like at issue here that allegedly caused a substantial disruption mainly based off the student’s use of expletives.  

The Supreme Court is expected to issue its ruling by late June.  Stay tuned for an update.