Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L.

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Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. is a 2021 U.S. Supreme Court case in which the Court considered whether the First Amendment prohibits public school officials from regulating student speech that occurs off campus. In this case, B.L., a student at Mahanoy Area High School, tried out for the varsity cheerleading squad for the upcoming year but did not make the team. Instead, she was offered a position on the junior varsity team. That weekend, B.L. visited a local convenience store where she uploaded two photos to her Snapchat. One showed B.L. and her friend with their middle fingers out with a vulgar caption. The other photo had text expressing frustration that she did not make the varsity team. One of B.L.’s Snapchat friends shared these photos with others and eventually the photos were revealed to a cheerleading squad coach at the school. In response, school officials decided to suspend B.L. from the junior varsity cheerleading squad for the upcoming year. B.L. filed a lawsuit in response, arguing her First Amendment rights had been violated. (Read more about the facts of this case from our Preview of the Supreme Court argument here.)

The District Court found for B.L., saying that B.L.’s speech did not cause a substantial disruption at the school. (Opinion here.)  This decision was appealed by the school district and the Third Circuit reviewed the case. The Third Circuit affirmed the District Court’s decision, stating that the school couldn’t discipline B.L. for her off-campus speech. (Opinion here.)  The school district appealed again asking the Supreme Court to decide whether the standard first articulated in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District applies in this case.

In Tinker, the Supreme Court held that public schools could regulate student speech that “materially disrupts classwork or involves substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others.”  (See here for a brief summary of that case.) The Mahanoy Area School District argued that it was trying to prevent school disruption by suspending B.L. from the junior varsity cheerleading squad. By vote of 8-1, the Supreme Court agreed with the lower courts that there was no insufficient proof of a substantial disruption, as the record showed there was only a 5 to 10 minute discussion of the matter in an Algebra class and a few upset members of the cheerleading squad. (See how the Justices voted here.)  Justice Breyer explained that mere discomfort or unpleasantness that comes with the expression of unpopular opinions is not sufficient to allow punishment of the speech. The speech must cause a substantial disruption in school activities. 

The Court did outline three categories of speech that schools can regulate: 1) “indecent,” “lewd,” or “vulgar” speech on school grounds, 2) speech that promotes illegal drug use during class trips, and 3) speech that appears to “bear[s] the imprimatur of the school,” such as a school newspaper. 

The Court stated that public schools may be justified in regulating off campus speech in particular circumstances. But, there are three features of off campus speech that diminishes the need for school’s to have special First Amendment leeway: 1) off campus speech normally falls within the zone of parental regulation, instead of the responsibility of the school, 2) giving the school power to regular student speech on campus and off would mean 24/7 regulation that would completely prevent the student from engaging in that kind of speech, and 3) schools should protect unpopular speech because they are the nurseries of democracy. 

The Court acknowledges a few facts about B.L.’s speech that shows the school had a diminished interest in punishing her speech. B.L.’s speech, while vulgar, is the exact kind of speech that falls into First Amendment protection. B.L.’s speech occurred outside of school hours at an off-campus location, with a circle of her friends. And B.L. did not identify anyone specifically in her posts. 

The Court recognized that the school has an interest in prohibiting their students from using vulgar language in criticism of school officials and evaluated those interests: 

  1. The school has an interest in teaching their students good manners, but this interest is diminished in this case because B.L. did not use vulgar language on school grounds and the school wasn’t acting in loco parentis. The school also could not show that they had made any efforts in the past to prevent students from using vulgar language outside of the campus; and 
  2. The school stated it had a concern for team morale because the “negativity put out there…could impact students in the school.” But the Court found no evidence of a substantial disruption of the team’s morale after B.L.’s posts. 

For the above reasons, the Court found B.L.’s speech was protected by the First Amendment, so her rights were violated when the school suspended her from the cheerleading team. 

Justice Alito wrote a concurring opinion, that Justice Gorsuch joined, providing a framework that courts might follow when analyzing a case like this. That opinion suggests the question courts must ask in cases like this is whether the parent can be reasonably understood to have given the school the authority to regulate the student speech in question. Justice Alito also advised courts to take notice of the difference between vulgar speech that targets the school and vulgar speech that targets a particular individual of the school. He states the court’s decision in this case should teach schools to proceed with caution when it comes to regulating off campus student speech because it raises concerns of a First Amendment violation. 

Justice Thomas wrote a dissenting opinion, where he stated the majority opinion was ignoring historical cases that found schools can regulate speech that occurs off campus when it has a proximate tendency to harm the school, students, programs, or faculty members. Justice Thomas says there may be good reasons for the Court to depart from this historical rule, but they failed to address the reasons behind this departure. 

[Written by Korica Simon ‘21 with the Wex Definitions Team in June of 2021]