First Amendment

Federal judge rules for cheerleader kicked off squad over Snapchat F-word post

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A federal judge in Pennsylvania has ruled on behalf of a high school cheerleader who was kicked of the junior varsity squad for using the F-word—multiple times—in a Snapchat post after a tryout disappointment.

U.S. District Judge A. Richard Caputo ruled that the Mahanoy Area School District violated the student’s First Amendment rights, report BuzzFeed News and the Morning Call.

The teen transmitted the post on a Saturday off school grounds, Caputo noted in his March 21 decision.

The student’s post pictured her and a friend holding up their middle fingers with the text, “f— school f— softball f— cheer f— everything.” She was dressed in street clothes, in front of “a local store and student stomping ground,” Caputo wrote.

The teen had posted on Snapchat in May 2017 after she was placed once again on the junior varsity squad at the end of her freshman year. She had hoped to win a spot on the varsity squad. “To add insult to injury,” Caputo wrote, “an incoming freshman made the varsity squad.”

The cheerleading coaches suspended the teen from the squad for a year, citing cheerleading rules. The rules bar disrespectful behavior and online posts of “negative information” about cheerleading.

Caputo said the team had violated First Amendment rights as laid out in the 1969 Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. The case involved students suspended for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War.

The general rule of that landmark case, Caputo said, is that student speech can be regulated only if it would substantially disrupt school operations or interfere with the rights of others.

In the teen’s case before Caputo, the school district failed to show that her Snapchat post “created any substantial disorder or likelihood thereof,” Caputo said.

The school district had argued that the teen and her mother had voluntarily waived the teen’s First Amendment rights by agreeing to the cheerleading rules before the tryouts.

Caputo said the district had not supplied enough evidence of a knowing and intelligent waiver, and “conditioning extracurricular participation on a waiver of a constitutional right is coercive.”

The district also argued that there is no constitutional right to participate in an extracurricular activity such as cheerleading, so there was no constitutional violation when the teen was removed from the squad.

Caputo countered that the school district was putting “the constitutional cart before the horse.” The district was infringing the right to freedom of speech, not the right to participate in a sport, he said.

Caputo ordered the school district to pay nominal damages of $1 and to expunge any record of disciplinary action. He had issued a temporary restraining order reinstating the teen to the squad in September 2017.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania represented the student, along with lawyers from Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis; the ACLU summary is here.

See also: “‘Tinker Tour’ promotes First Amendment with plaintiff in SCOTUS student-speech case”

ABA Journal: “Free expression of student journalists gets ABA support”

ABA Journal: “When do rants exceed First Amendment boundaries and become true threats?”

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