First Amendment

'Landmark decision' backs cheerleader kicked off squad for Snapchat F-word post

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A federal appeals court has ruled that a Pennsylvania school district violated a high school cheerleader’s First Amendment rights when it kicked her off the squad for a Snapchat message.

In a June 30 decision, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at Philadelphia ruled for the teen, who attended the Mahanoy Area School District in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, report the Legal Intelligencer and a press release by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.

A federal judge had also ruled last year for the cheerleader, who posted the message on a Saturday off school grounds. The post pictured the teen and her friend holding up their middle fingers with the text, “f- - - school f- - - softball f- - - cheer f- - - everything.”

The teen was angry partly because she had made the junior varsity squad, rather than the varsity cheerleading team.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania called the ruling a “landmark decision” that bars schools from policing students’ off-campus speech based on a fear that it will disrupt school activities. Its lawyers consider the decision “the most expansive ruling on students’ off-campus speech rights in the country.”

The ACLU had argued the case before the 3rd Circuit.

The 3rd Circuit majority concluded that the leading U.S. Supreme Court decision on campus speech, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, did not apply to off-campus speech. Tinker held that student speech can be regulated only if it would substantially disrupt school operations or interfere with the rights of others. The case involved students suspended for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War.

“We hold today that Tinker does not apply to off-campus speech—that is, speech that is outside school-owned, -operated or -supervised channels and that is not reasonably interpreted as bearing the school’s imprimatur,” the 3rd Circuit said.

Because the teen’s speech was outside the school context, Tinker did not apply, and the cheerleader’s speech “lies beyond the school’s regulatory authority,” the court said.

The court said it was “reserving for another day the First Amendment implications of off-campus student speech that threatens violence or harasses others.”

Judge Thomas Ambro concurred in the judgment. He agreed that there was a First Amendment violation under 3rd Circuit precedent but said the majority should not have reached the question of whether Tinker applies to off-campus speech.

Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said in the press release that the decision is important “because it recognizes that students who are outside of school enjoy full free speech rights, not the diluted rights they have inside the schoolhouse.”

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