The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Pennsylvania cheerleader Brandi Levy in a case that addressed public schools’ ability to penalize students for off-campus speech. The 8-1 ruling held that the school’s interest in regulating student speech did not extend to Levy’s free expression, and further that public schools must have a “heavy burden to justify intervention.”
Levy, who as a freshman in 2017 did not make the varsity cheer team, posted a profanity-laced rant on Snapchat, saying, “F-ck school f-ck softball f-ck cheer f-ck everything.” When a screenshot of the post made its way to school officials, Levy was suspended from the junior varsity cheer squad for a year. After the school refused to re-evaluate its decision, Levy and her parents took the case to a federal district court and won. The school district appealed the decision all the way to the Supreme Court, arguing it needed to regulate off-campus speech to keep students safe from cyberbullying.
Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the majority that “courts must be more skeptical of a school’s efforts to regulate off-campus speech, for doing so may mean the student cannot engage in that kind of speech at all.” Breyer further argued the school itself has an interest in protecting student free speech, even if that speech is unpopular or frowned upon by the administration.
America’s public schools are the nurseries of democracy. Our representative democracy only works if we protect the “marketplace of ideas.” This free exchange facilitates an informed public opinion, which, when transmitted to lawmakers, helps produce laws that reflect the People’s will. That protection must include the protection of unpopular ideas, for popular ideas have less need for protection. Thus, schools have a strong interest in ensuring that future generations understand the workings in practice of the well-known aphorism, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Justice Clarence Thomas, the only dissenter of the majority opinion, argued the ruling does not accurately reflect historical rulings from similar cases and is too vague for schools to interpret.