U.S. Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Student in First Amendment Off-Campus Speech Case

On June 23, 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in an important off-campus student speech case in favor of the student. Specifically, the Supreme Court held the school district denied a student’s First Amendment right to free speech when it suspended her from the cheerleading team after her off-campus Snapchat posts expressed frustration following cheerleading tryouts.

In the case, a Pennsylvania high school student tried out for cheerleading as a sophomore and made the junior varsity team, while an incoming freshman made the varsity team. Following tryouts, the student aired her frustration by posting two photographs of herself and a friend on Snapchat with their middle fingers raised and used a caption containing explicit and inappropriate language towards the school. The student’s Snapchat story posts were visible to approximately 250 Snapchat friends, many of whom were students at her school and some of whom were cheerleaders. Eventually, news of the student’s posts made its way to the cheerleading coaches, who removed the student from the cheerleading team for violating team and school rules.

The student sued the school district, asserting that her suspension violated the First Amendment, that the school and team rules she allegedly violated were overbroad and viewpoint discriminatory and that those rules were unconstitutionally vague. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, holding that (1) the student’s speech was off-campus speech entitled to First Amendment protection, (2) schools may not constitutionally limit off-campus student speech, and (3) the student did not waive her free speech rights by agreeing to certain school and team rules.    

On appeal, the Supreme Court affirmed the outcome of the Third Circuit’s decision but disagreed with the Third Circuit’s rationale. Specifically, although the Supreme Court held that the student’s off-campus speech, in this case, did not substantially disrupt the school environment and the school district violated the student’s First Amendment rights by imposing discipline, the Court declared that “public schools may have a special interest in regulating some off-campus student speech,” especially online or off-campus student speech that genuinely disrupts a school activity or threatens harm to the rights of others. However, the Court left it for future cases to decide “where, when, and how these features mean the speaker’s off-campus location will make the critical difference” in determining whether a student’s off-campus speech warrants First Amendment protection. 

For a further discussion of the Supreme Court’s decision, panel for a discussion of the holding and its practical ramifications for Illinois school districts.

The webinar will take place on Wednesday, July 7 from 11:30 am – 12:30 pm CT. Register here.