Free Speech Case: Mahanoy ISD v. B.L
On April 28th, 2021, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) heard arguments for Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L concerning a school’s authority to regulate students’ right to free speech off school grounds when it comes to finding what may constitute as actions that “materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school” by students.
In the question presented before the Roberts Court, cited Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969), which ruling set the precedent that unless a student’s free speech impacted the efficient running of the school then the school cannot suppress the student’s free speech. This is important for this case since it pertains to a student who expressed her frustration towards her extracurricular activity and the school, off-campus.
Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. is a case concerning a high school girl who did not make the varsity cheer squad but instead made junior varsity. As a result of receiving this unfavorable news, the student posted on Snapchat how she felt about the school and other organizations by using curse words for each. Following the revelation of this information by her coach via a student, the coach suspended her from the junior varsity cheer squad. In response, B.L.’s family sued the school under 42 U.S.C. §1983, believing that by suspending their daughter from the JV cheerleading team, they violated her Freedom of Speech, and the rules of the school that their daughter had allegedly broken were “overbroad and viewpoint discriminatory; and that those rules are unconstitutionally vague”.
The United States Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of B.L and in April of 2020, the School District appealed for an oral argument. During the oral arguments, while answering The School district’s advocate, Lisa Blatt replied to Chief Justice Roberts question on hypotheticals say,
“Tinker is always going to be context-specific, and whether teachers or school officials can forecast a reasonable disruption depends on when and where the student speaks, how many people hear it, and what the student said. And when and where in the classroom is going to be very different as opposed to a sleepover”.
In response, several of the justices expressed their skepticism as to how schools will properly implement the required procedures found in this case, especially when it comes to the extent by which the boundary of the school’s authority can stretch in regulating a student’s ability to speak freely about their school.
The determination to draw an ambiguous free-speech line concerned Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who said,
“However, it is true, where do we draw the line with respect to it targeting a school… Most of [the students’] exchanges have to do with their perceptions of the authoritarian nature of their teachers and others”.
The debate surrounding this imaginary line that all schools must utilize may become an area of great contention within local communities. Especially when it comes to infringing on student activist groups and organizations’ ability to speak out about policies.
Associate Justice Barret shared her opinion on the possible implications of this case, when it comes to the expansion of the school’s current authority, by saying that it may be possible for schools to
“abuse this authority and that they punish things that may be don’t cause substantial disruption”.
In response to this skepticism by the justices, the advocates on behalf of the school district do believe that the authority schools have should be better narrowed to allow them the chance to better determine what is or is not a threat to the stability of the campus, and likewise will permit the protection of the school district’s pupils.
The ruling that will ultimately be made by the Roberts Court will be significant and long-lasting considering the increased use of social media in the everyday life of a school student and will impact how schools will go about disciplining students as a result of their speech in the future. Although the justices are conflicted as to what is the best course of action, either relaxing the schools’ authority in regards to students when it comes to their public expression, whether good or bad, towards the school and the consequences of what a student posts, or the possibility of “the harmful effects that some speech, such as cyberbullying, can have at school even when it happens off-campus”. To quote a possible option proposed by Associate Justice Stephen G. Breyer, who offered his input on how Tinker could have been better worded, such that schools understand, “You do have some authority where there’s a substantial injury to disruption in the class or somebody’s going to be hurt in that school, et cetera. And I would add: But, remember, it’s outside the school. And that’s primarily the domain of the parents.”