Students, as the Supreme Court has said, do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Still, schools can limit student speech to prevent significant disturbances. But how far do a school’s powers to control speech extend beyond the schoolhouse gate?
One Pennsylvania high school student tested those limits after posting “f*ck school, f*ck softball, f*ck cheer, f*ck everything” on Snapchat while posing outside the local Cocoa Hut. And a federal court ruled that it was protected speech.
What the F*ck?
The student, referred to only as “B.L.” in legal documents, wasn’t too pleased with how cheerleading tryouts had gone at Mahanoy Area High School. Assigned to the JV squad as a sophomore — when an incoming freshman was named to the varsity team — B.L. fired off the profane Snap with a friend. After other students saw it, she was dismissed from the cheerleading team completely. But, while schools can in some cases limit disruptive on-campus speech or speech in school-sponsored activities, that control is not unlimited.
“Coaches cannot punish students for what they say off the field,” Judge A. Richard Caputo explained, noting that “B.L. ‘spoke,’ through Snapchat, in street clothes, at the Cocoa Hut, on a Saturday; the District does not and cannot claim that constitutes on-campus speech.” Most importantly, the school district or Coach Nicole Luchetta-Rump couldn’t convince the court B.L.’s speech had been or was sufficiently likely to be disruptive:
Moreover, Coach Luchetta-Rump testified, at both the preliminary injunction hearing and at her deposition, that she punished B.L. for profanely referencing cheerleading, not because of any possibility of disruption. She would have punished B.L. — under the same Rules — if B.L.’s Snap read: “Cheerleading is fucking awesome.” The District cannot sidestep these admissions and have me theorize what a reasonable coach could have concluded about B.L.’s speech. B.L.’s mere off-campus profanity is what upset Coach Luchetta-Rump, not the potential for chaos about which the District’s evidence, at best, raises “metaphysical doubt.”
Absent clear Supreme Court precedent on off-campus speech, lower courts have been left to figure it out for themselves. T-shirts that say “I Love Boobies”? That’s OK. Blog posts that call school administrators “douche bags”? Not so much. Fake MySpace profiles poking fun at principals? Protected speech. Creating and inviting classmates to a MySpace group called “Students Against Sluts Herpes”? Big trouble. And while all these are comical examples, schools are struggling with how to police social media speech that leads to bullying and shaming, online and IRL.