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Mahanoy Area School District vs B.L

How a Snapchat ended up in the supreme court, and what it means for future students.


BACKGROUND:


Docket No. 20-255

Date Argued: April 28, 2021

Date Decided: Jun 23,2021


In 2017, high school teenager Brandi Levy failed to make the varsity cheer team at her high school. Frustrated and angry, she turned to Snapchat. Levy posted two snaps containing profane words and gestures, containing the following, “F-ck school f-ck softball f-ck cheer f-ck everything.” Quite to the point! Levy’s school later discovered the snaps-- through student reports-- and placed her on suspension for violating school rules of conduct..




PRESIDING QUESTIONS;


So why did a Snapchat post get to the Supreme Court? Well, it wasn’t the collection of swear words that caught judicial attention; it was the school suspending Levy based on an off-campus action. The following questions were proposed: Does freedom of speech prohibit public schools from regulating off-campus student speech and actions? Does the school have any disciplinary jurisdiction over what happens in the supposed private and off-campus lives of students?




OUTCOME: 8-1 Majority Opinion Decision for B.L


Levy’s suspension was deemed unconstitutional. Because she was not causing direct disturbances or inciting immediate danger to the school, her speech was protected by the first amendment. Instead, the supreme court ruled “in loco parentis” which basically means that only Levy’s parents could decide her punishment.




PARTIES AND OPINIONS


Side 1: Brandi Levy (Respondent)

  • At the time, Brandi Levy was a 14-year-old student at Mahanoy Area High School in Pennsylvania. Because she was a minor, she was also represented through her father Larence Levy, and her mother Betty Lou.

  • Respondent Argument: (Majority) Levy was not creating immediate danger through her Snapchat. Likewise, it is protected under the First Amendment.

Side 2: Mahanoy Area School District (Petitioner)

  • Mahanoy Area School District is a small and rural public school district in Pennsylvania serving multiple cities covering around 50 square miles.

  • Petitioner Argument (Dissenting)- Historically, schools could discipline students for similar actions as Levy.

Concurring Opinion

  • The concurring opinion agrees with the majority but questions why public schools have more first amendment restrictions than non-public schools.



SIGNIFICANCE


Despite the seemingly static and concrete design of our constitutional amendments, there is still room for reshaping, redefinition and drawing new lines. Mahanoy Area School District vs. B.L. is no exception. It is another episode of the judicial branch drawing boxes around the first amendment.


Historically speaking (as described by dissenting justice Thomas) the first amendment does not protect public-school student’s speech if it is (1) lewd/vulgar on campus (2) promoting drug use during class trips (3) is in the name of the school-- like a school newspaper. (4) disrupts classwork (5) invades the rights of others. On a more general plane, the first amendment does not protect speech that incites violence or immediate danger as seen in Brandenburg v Ohio


Mahanoy Area School District vs. B.L. helps strengthen this SCOTUS stance on the First Amendment. Levy’s circumstance did not challenge the rights of other students, neither did it call for immediate violence or disturb her classroom. Suspending her, therefore, violated her First Amendment rights.


So yes…. you can legally say potty words off-campus without getting suspended. But that doesn’t mean you should!



 

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