The case in question stems from a 2017 incident in which a Pennsylvania high school student, identified as B.L., posted a profanity-loaded message on the social media platform Snapchat after she was placed on the junior varsity cheerleading team instead of the varsity team. A teammate of B.L. took a screenshot of her offensive message and reported it to cheerleading coaches, who then suspended the teenager from the team for a year, citing team and school rules about foul language and disrespect for teammates and coaches.
B.L., represented by the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, sued the school district, alleging that the punishment violated her freedom of speech. A federal district court judge ordered the school to reinstate B.L. to the team, ruling that the school had gone too far in punishing the girl for an inappropriate social media message posted off-campus and after school hours.
The decision was upheld by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at Philadelphia, and B.L. remained in the cheerleading team until she graduated in 2020.
“To be sure, B.L.’s Snap was crude, rude, and juvenile, just as we might expect of an adolescent,” Circuit Judge Cheryl Ann Krause wrote for the unanimous court opinion. “But the primary responsibility for teaching civility rests with parents and other members of the community. As arms of the state, public schools have an interest in teaching civility by example, persuasion, and encouragement, but they may not leverage the coercive power with which they have been entrusted to do so.”
The panel of judges cited the 1969 case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which involved students suspended by an Ohio public school for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. The Supreme Court ruled in the monumental case that public schools can’t police student speech unless it would materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school.
The school district appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the Tinker case didn’t apply, and that the 3rd Circuit’s decision would take away the power from school districts to keep millions of students safe across the nation.
“That lawsuit has produced a judicial decision that leaves schools powerless to respond to speech that is directed at the school environment and would have a devastating effect on students’ well-being during the school day,” the school district said in a statement.
The Pennsylvania district was supported by a number of education groups, including the National School Boards Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the American Association of School Administrators.
“The 3rd Circuit’s stark line between off-campus and on-campus speech is untenable, especially in the age of social media,” the National School Boards Association said in a friend-of-the-court brief (pdf). “It is now unclear if schools can regulate, among other things, racist, vulgar, or sexually harassing speech that occurs online and off campus, even if that speech is directed at other students or school administrators, and even if it is otherwise reasonably likely to materially disrupt on-campus life.”