Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., et al., No. 20-255 (S. Ct.). Oral argument scheduled for April 28, 2021 at 10 a.m.
Student B.L., who was all in on cheerleading activities, was distressed to learn that a less senior student had jumped the line to the varsity squad, while she, with a year’s experience to her credit, remained on the junior varsity squad. As is normative among digital natives, B.L. made her views known online on the social media application Snapchat. B.L. did not have a good word to say, and indeed she used some words that a grandmother might kindly term “unladylike.”
Soon thereafter the school was abuzz with the news of B.L.’s postings. School administrators, displeased with her having posted material that it considered disrespectful and disruptive of school and school-related activities, determined that she ought to sit the cheerleading season out. This was fiercely protested by B.L. and her family. The school would not budge, and this case, which questions how much off-site speech a school may discipline, ensued.
During the Viet Nam War, students protesting the United States’ participation in that conflict came to school wearing black arm bands to signify their disagreement. When a school tried to countermand this activity, the Supreme Court disciplined the school instead. In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, et al, 393 U.S. 503 (1969), the Court concluded that minor students are not without Constitutional rights, including speech and expressive rights. Schools may not interfere with students’ speech and expressive activities except where the ordinary activity of the school or the rights of others may be substantially disrupted thereby.
Life today is no longer constrained geographically as in the past. Communication is instant online and that communication may reach an audience any time and any where. Boundaries as they once were known are no more, leaving schools to wonder how they might navigate the shoals of order and expression.
The petitioning school district argues that it was error for the trial and appellate courts to interpret Tinker as inapplicable to off-site activity. Schools, responsible for so much of students’ lives in the day to day, must be able to maintain civility when offsite online behavior interferes with order or threatens others.
B.L. counters that the First Amendment rights recognized in Tinker would be meaningless if students, fearful of condemnation and harsh consequences from school authorities, were not able to communicate online as they would wish.
The United States, as amicus with a bit more clout than many other amici, while favoring the school’s position, suggests that there are several lenses with which to evaluate the interests of the parties, but asks the Supreme Court to return the case to the lower courts for further developments.