U.S. Supreme Court Hears Oral Arguments in Off-Campus Student Free Speech Case

The United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments today, April 28, 2021, in Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. At issue in the case is whether the precedential case, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, applies to student speech that occurs off-campus.

The case involves B.L., a high school cheerleader who was not promoted to her school’s varsity cheerleading team. Voicing her frustration online, B.L. posted a Snap on Snapchat with a photo of her and her friend at a local 24-hour convenience store in Mahanoy City, PA. The Snap contained a photo of B.L. and her friend holding up their middle fingers, with the text “f*** school f*** softball f*** cheer f*** everything” superimposed over the photo. The Snap was made available only to B.L.’s Snapchat friends. One person took a screenshot of B.L.’s Snap and showed it to the daughter of one of the school’s cheerleading coaches. B.L. was then expelled from the team for violating the Mahanoy Area High School’s “Cheerleading Rules,” which prohibit cheerleaders from posting any “negative information regarding cheerleading, cheerleaders, or coaches placed on the Internet.” The rules also require cheerleaders to avoid “foul language and inappropriate gestures.”

The American Civil Liberties Union helped B.L. and her parents file suit in federal court. A district court judge ruled that B.L.’s expulsion violated the First Amendment and ordered B.L. be reinstated to the junior varsity cheerleading team. The school board appealed the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. A panel in that appellate court ruled that Tinker, which holds that public school officials may regulate speech that would materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school, does not extend to off-campus speech. The panel defined off-campus speech as “speech that is outside school-owned, -operated, or -supervised channels and that is not reasonably interpreted as bearing the school’s imprimatur.” The Third Circuit’s ruling did not address “the First Amendment implications of off-campus student speech that threatens violence or harasses others.”

Thirty-four amicus briefs have been submitted to the Supreme Court in this case, which is approximately twice the average number of amicus briefs filed in Supreme Court cases, per statistics published by the National Law Journal. The United States filed an amicus brief in support of the school, but did not take a position “on whether [B.L.]’s  particular posts would fall within a category of off-campus student speech that may properly be regarded as school speech, or whether, if so, they were substantially disruptive under Tinker.”

Additional Reading

A cheerleader’s Snapchat rant leads to ‘momentous’ Supreme Court case on student speech, The Washington Post (April 25, 2021)

SPLC’s 5 minute guide to B.L. v. Mahanoy, Student Press Law Center (April 26, 2021)

Supreme Court Docket in Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L.

Brief for the United States as Amicus Curiae Supporting Petitioner

B.L. v. Mahanoy Area School District, No. 19-1842 (3d Cir. 2020)