Issue No. 6 | June 2021

Snapchat, School, Free Speech and… Cheerleading?

By Austin W. Probst

Social media is a pervasive, inescapable facet of the modern world. People of all ages, from all around the globe, have access to posts, thoughts, feelings, actions and much more from half the world away. Despite its positive applications, social media is not without its faults. This summer, the Supreme Court of the United States is being called upon to decide a case that involves an integral intersection of social media and modern American life. The case, Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L.,grapples with the first amendment, school regulation of speech, and among other issues, Snapchat.

In 2016, Brandi Levy (“BL”) tried out for her high school varsity cheerleading team. However, she was notified that she did not make varsity and instead was placed on the junior varsity team. After she received the news, BL was angry with the decision and, over the weekend, she posted a picture of herself on the popular social media platform Snapchat with a caption utilizing expletives regarding school and cheerleading. The photo was visible to many, including other students and cheerleaders. The allure of the Snapchat platform, her chosen social media site, is that pictures posted to it will disappear within 24 hours and no longer be visible to anyone. However, Snapchat has a “screen capture” feature which allowed some of the other students to save the post.

Several of the students who saw the post approached school staff, including the cheerleading coaches, saying that the post was inappropriate. The staff decided that the post violated school rules and policy. Accordingly, BL was then suspended from cheering on the junior varsity team for a year. After BL was suspended, she (by and through her parents) filed suit in federal court alleging, among other things, that the school had unconstitutionally punished her free speech, which was made outside of the school. The federal district court ruled in her favor, finding that the school violated her first amendment rights. The school appealed, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision. The matter is being framed within the landmark ruling contained in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which dealt with the speech of students wearing black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War at school. That case was decided in 1969, well before the invention of social media, creating a complicated interaction between modern technology and traditional education, particularly considering that none of the justices involved in the Tinker decision are still serving on the Court. Nevertheless, oral argument on the matter was held on April 28, 2021. On June 23, 2021[1], the Court ultimately sided with BL in what some outlets are calling a “limited opinion”. We are wondering what side effects a ruling on either side may case throughout the country for school districts and social media platform usage alike.

[1] Originally, this post was written prior to the opinion release.

Sources: Supreme Court of the United States No. 20-255 | Facts and Case Summary – Tinker v. Des Moines

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