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Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Explained: Why a 14-year-old girl’s Snapchat post has ended up in the US Supreme Court

In the case, on one hand is the question of offences like cyberbullying, in which content is mostly created off-campus, while on the other is the issue of giving schools power to monitor everything students say outside.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: April 27, 2021 9:22:34 am
Brandi Levy, Brandi Levy snapchat case, Mahanoy Area High School, US students civil liberties, US school students civil liberties supreme court, Tinker case US students, express explained, indian expressBrandi Levy, now 18, wears her former cheerleading outfit, sitting outside her school in Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania, on April 4. (AP Photo)

When Brandi Levy, a teenager from Pennsylvania state in the US, was suspended from her high school cheerleading squad in 2017 for sending a profanity-laced Snapchat post to her friends, few expected that the matter would reach the US Supreme Court.

But that is exactly what is happening this week, as the apex American court is getting ready to hear arguments in what is being described as the most important case on the right of public school students to freedom of expression in decades.

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What did Brandi Levy do?

In May 2017, Levy, who was 14 at the time, made a Snapchat post on a weekend at a convenience store away from her school in rural Pennsylvania, ranting about her being left out from its cheerleading team. The then-9th grader wrote in the post, “F— school f— softball f— cheer f— everything,” which also had a photo in which she and a classmate raised their middle fingers, as per an Associated Press report.

School coaches at Mahanoy Area High School said Levy had broken rules and undermined team cohesion, and barred her from the squad for a year.

Levy’s parents then decided to fight the school decision. With support from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), they filed a federal case against the Mahanoy Area School District, asking that Levy be reinstated to the team, and demanded a ruling that her rights under the First Amendment (which protects free speech in the US) had been violated.

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What is the US law on pupils’ freedom of speech?

A US Supreme Court judgment in the 1969 case ‘Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District’ lays down the law protecting students’ speech. In that case, a school in Iowa state had suspended pupils who were wearing armbands protesting the Vietnam War. In a landmark ruling, the court sided with the students, and declared that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

However, the court also said that the students’ rights were protected as long as their activity did not cause “material and substantial” disruption to the school– diminishing them to that extent. Practically, this means that although school authorities have the authority to discipline speech or expression on campus that is deemed inappropriate, the same would be protected by the First Amendment if done away from the school.

Despite the courts applying the Tinker precedent for more than 50 years, it still remains unclear what makes up a school setting and what does not, a Vox report said.

So, what happened in Levy’s case?

Levy argued that since she had made the Snapchat post off campus and on a non-school day, the school had no authority to punish her for it. In an interview with AP, Levy, who is now 18 and goes to college, said, “I was a 14-year-old kid. I was upset, I was angry. Everyone, every 14-year-old kid speaks like that at one point”.

The school, on the other hand, said that it commonly takes action against its students for their speech or actions off-campus, and that Levi’s activity had disrupted the school community.

A judge first ordered Levy’s reinstatement to the cheerleading team, finding that her actions had not been disruptive under Tinker. When the school district appealed, the appellate court agreed with the lower court verdict, saying, “Tinker does not apply to off-campus speech.” It also said that it was leaving for another day “the First Amendment implications of off-campus student speech that threatens violence or harasses others.”

The successive rulings in Levy’s favour, however, upset many, including school boards, anti-bullying advocates and even the administration of President Joe Biden. The school district then asked the Supreme Court to look into the case.

Writing on behalf of the Biden administration, acting US Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar said, “The First Amendment does not categorically prohibit public schools from disciplining students for speech that occurs off campus”.

What could happen now?

Legal scholars say that it is difficult for the Supreme Court to decide a clear line between behaviour on-campus and off-campus in the information age, in which conditions are vastly different from the era when the Tinker case was decided.

On one hand, the court has to ensure that its judgment addresses cyberbullying, in which content is mostly created off-campus on electronic devices such as laptops and iPads. The school board says that a ruling in favour of Levy will make it difficult for authorities around the country to discipline bullying, harassment and racism taking place on social media after school hours.

At the same time, the court would also have to make sure that its ruling does not end up creating an environment in which schools have the authority to monitor everything that students say or do when at home. The ACLU has said that with such powers, schools could conduct “dragnet online surveillance” of students.

The court is expected to make its decision in the case by the end of June, a Reuters report said.

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