On June 23rd, the Supreme Court published its opinion in Mahoney Area School District v. B.L. (2021) No. 20–255. At issue in this case: the court must determine if the school may punish a student for speech that occurs while the student is off campus.
After being denied membership to the Varsity Volleyball team, B.L. (a minor) used her snapchat account to say “Fuck the school” and express her displeasure that a freshmen was placed on the team instead of her. She posted this after school hours while off campus at a fast food restaurant. At least one of the students took a photo of the snap and circulated it around the school, and the school responded by suspending B.L. from athletics altogether for a period of one-year and put a mark in her permanent record that they would not expunge.
Traditionally, schools may regulate four types of speech: (1) lewd speech, (2) speech promoting illicit drug use, (3) speech appearing as a publication of the school, and (4) speech that has a substantial impact upon the education environment.
Justice Breyer acknowledges all of these factors, but notes that there may be times when a school does have a right to reach outside the school’s campus. Especially now, in a time where classes are conducted in the living room via Zoom, the school has a vested interest in regulating some speech outside the classroom.
Amici Curiae submitted examples: “serious or severe bullying or harassment targeting particular individuals; threats aimed at teachers or other students; the failure to follow rules concerning lessons, the writing of papers, the use of computers, or participation in other online school activities; and breaches of school security devices, including material maintained within school computers.”
Despite the wide reach that a school may take in those proposed situations, the school cannot reach into every aspect of a student’s home life. Much of the restrictions that a school can place upon a student is based on the idea that the school “stands in the shoes of the parents” (technically, in the position of the parents—in loco parentis), but here, the school does not. Additionally, if the Supreme Court were to allow the school to regulate both on-campus and off-campus speech, then they would grant the school 24-hour license to punish children for speech at all hours of their lives. This would prevent children from ever freely expressing themselves or exchanging ideas for fear of repercussions at school. This last point brings us to Breyer’s final point: That the school itself wants students to engage in this kind of speech.
Although this school chose to discipline B.L., schools in general are nurseries of democracy.” As part of that, it is the schools duty to nurture discussion and the spread of ideas, even the unpopular ones.
B.L. used a personal cell phone to express a rightful displeasure. She used profane language, but there was merit to the underlying frustration. She expressed herself on a platform that promotes privacy and only broadcasts to “friends.” The school goes beyond its lawful reach when it punishes a student under such circumstances.
This is not a situation where a teacher or a student was targeted or bullied. This did not significantly disrupt classroom activities, or take place while the personal phone or computer of a student was committed to classroom activities. This was private use of personal equipment to communicate with friends.
The school goes beyond its license to regulate speech when it punishes a student for off-campus speech on social media, even when a third-party brings that speech into the classroom.