In B.L. v. Mahanoy Area School District, 2017 WL 4418290 (M.D. Pa. 2017), a federal trial court in Pennsylvania ruled that a School District did not have a right to discipline a student for posting a profane SnapChat, off-campus. B.L., the student, was a member of the junior varsity cheerleading squad and the School District gave coaches of extracurricular activities the authority to make the rules for their activities. The cheerleading rules governing B.L.’s team stated that “There will be no toleration of any negative information regarding cheerleading, cheerleaders, or coaches placed on the internet.” B.L. posted a SnapChat off school grounds and not during school hours, that showed her and a friend holding up their middle fingers with the text, “f*** school f*** softball f*** cheer f*** everything” over the image. Five days later, the cheerleading coach dismissed B.L. from the cheerleading squad saying that the snap was “disrespectful” to the coaches, school, and other cheerleaders.

In his decision, the judge reviewed case precedent on the First Amendment’s protection of the freedom of speech in schools. The judge noted that the U.S. Supreme Court decided, in its seminal decision of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, that students do not lose their right to free speech when they are in school. However, there are exceptions to this general rule for: 1) speech likely to disrupt the school environment; or 2) profane speech. But, as the Pennsylvania judge noted, the exception for profane speech does not extend to speech made off-campus. In essence, the judge held that a school district cannot act as “thought police” for student speech that occurs off-school grounds. Consequently, the court held that B.L.’s SnapChat was protected speech under the First Amendment and the school did not have a right to punish her.

Still, the School District argued that its actions were proper because it only dismissed B.L. from the cheerleading squad, and it did not exclude her from a “property interest” (i.e., certain fundamental rights protected by the U.S. Constitution) to education such as a suspension or an expulsion. The judge rejected that argument reasoning that the type of punishment is irrelevant when analyzing discipline of student speech.

This case shows the complexities that arise for school districts when they punish students for off-campus speech or when they exclude students from extracurricular activities. Contact Michelle Todd or Pam Simaga with your student speech or student discipline inquiries.