A U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding students’ First Amendment rights might change the way one Tampa Bay area school district deals with students’ off-campus comments.
In an 8-1 ruling issued Wednesday, the court found that a Pennsylvania school district was wrong to suspend a student who made profane Snapchat statements about campus activities after she did not win a spot on the varsity cheer team.
While schools have some room to discipline students for things said outside school, the majority wrote, they do not have blanket authority to control all student speech.
“[T]he school itself has an interest in protecting a student’s unpopular expression, especially when the expression takes place off campus,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote. “America’s public schools are the nurseries of democracy. Our representative democracy only works if we protect the ‘marketplace of ideas.’”
Pasco County school district officials had been keeping close tabs on the case.
A year ago, the School Board amended its student code of conduct to include potential punishments for students on teams or clubs who make derogatory online comments while wearing school gear.
Pasco students could face suspension or dismissal from their team, and in some cases teams could forfeit games or events.
Director of student services Melissa Musselwhite said the rule was meant to target instances such as students in uniform posting TikTok videos that depict violence or making negative statements about school — particularly if they cause campus disruptions.
Given the nature of the Pennsylvania case, and the court’s support of the plaintiff’s right to make general criticisms on her own time, Musselwhite said the district would reexamine whether its stance could hold.
“We’re definitely going to look at it,” she said. “We won’t take very long.”
School Board chairman Allen Altman favored the restrictions placed on students in uniform, saying they should positively represent their schools.
He added, though, that if the district rule does not meet legal muster, it would be fixed. The board updates policies at least twice a year to reflect changes in state and federal law, and court precedents.
Officials in the Pinellas and Hillsborough county school districts said they did not have rules in their codes of conduct that go as far as Pasco.
Their regulations over student speech adhere more closely to the areas the court found permissible to govern, such as dealing with bullying, cheating, threats and safety concerns.
Pinellas, for instance, has a policy on First Amendment freedom of expression, which states in part, “when a student exercises that right, the student must do so in a responsible manner that does not cause a disruption of the school or a school activity. A principal may impose reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on your exercise of First Amendment freedom of expression when there is evidence of imminent disruption of the school.”
School Board member Nicole Carr, a former assistant principal, said she was pleased the court left intact schools’ ability to deal with threats and bullying that occurs off campus. She agreed that the Pennsylvania school district went too far in suspending the student because of her Snapchat tirade.
“If someone expressed an opinion that doesn’t negatively impact an individual or constitute bullying, you should be able to articulate your opinion,” Carr said.
The Pennsylvania case arose from posts made by Brandi Levy, who was 14 at the time and just starting high school. One post pictured her and a friend with raised middle fingers and repeated use of a vulgarity to complain that she had been left off the varsity cheerleading squad.
“F--k school f--k softball f--k cheer f--k everything,” she wrote. Now 18, Levy recently finished her first year of college.
Levy’s parents filed a federal lawsuit after the cheerleading coach suspended her from the junior varsity team for a year. Lower courts ruled in Levy’s favor, and she was reinstated.
The school district appealed to the Supreme Court after the broad appellate ruling that said off-campus student speech was beyond schools’ authority to punish.
The dispute is the latest in a line of a cases that began with Tinker v. Des Moines, the Vietnam-era case of a high school in Des Moines, Iowa, that suspended students who wore armbands to protest the war. In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court sided with the students, declaring students don’t “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
The court also held then that schools retained the authority to restrict speech that would disrupt the school environment.
Breyer wrote that Levy’s case seemed less serious than its Vietnam-era predecessor, decided in 1969.
In dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that he would have upheld Levy’s suspension.
Pinellas School Board attorney David Koperski said he did not see any need to change the district’s policies because of the ruling. He said the decision seemed to generally uphold 50 years of case law without breaking much new ground.
He speculated that the court took up the case “not to make any new rules, but rather to essentially overturn the 3rd Circuit Appellate Court’s statement that the seminal 1969 case ... did not apply at all to off-campus speech.”
That would have been a significant change, Koperski said.
Jim Porter, the lawyer for the Hillsborough School Board, agreed that the ruling offered more of a clarification for school districts as they deal with student speech issues. The Hillsborough code of conduct does not spell out any specifics on student free speech.
“I don’t anticipate, based on this decision, we would have to change anything,” Porter said.
This report includes information from Associated Press.