The Scope of Free Speech in Schools

SCOTUS set to hear case with serious implications for First Amendment rights

Following controversial censorship on social media platforms, arguments over what constitutes free speech have recently come to the forefront. At the same time, a case with large-scale implications for free speech in schools has quietly made its way to the Supreme Court, and the decision will undoubtedly affect us all for years to come.  

As it is written in the Constitution, our First Amendment guarantees “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech.” However, over the years the Supreme Court has ruled that this right is not absolute.

Specifically, four cases serve as precedent for limits on free speech in schools. The latter three stem from a case in 1969 called Tinker vs. Des Moines, which granted schools the right to limit “disruptive speech” on campus. Later rulings have expanded upon this power, but little has been said on speech outside of school, as to not impede upon life at home. 

The significance of this latest case, Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., is that it will finally set a precedent for schools’ powers in regard to speech off-campus. Especially as schools have become increasingly virtual as a result of COVID-19, more and more speech is being said off-campus and online, and it’s important for schools to know how to react to it.

According to the New York Times, the case began in the Spring of 2017, when a student in Pennsylvania was cut from her varsity cheerleading squad. To vent, she sent an image on Snapchat to around 250 peers with her middle finger up and vulgar language criticizing “school,” “softball,” “cheer,” and “everything.”

The post was soon screenshotted by a peer and showed to a parent, who was a coach at the school. This prompted the school to take action, and they decided to suspend the student from cheer for a year to uphold a “teamlike environment” and “avoid chaos.”

In return, the girl’s family sued the school district. The circuit court ruled in her favor, claiming that schools do not have the right to punish students for any speech off campus. Subsequently, the school district petitioned the Supreme Court, and they have agreed to hear it later this year.

Though simple profanity as in the 2017 case should not merit any sort of punishment from schools—and in that regard, the circuit court’s decision may appear to be a just protection of Constitutional rights—the ruling that all speech outside of school is protected, if upheld, could severely limit schools’ ability to handle dangerous speech, such as cyberbullying or racist attacks.

While free speech should be protected to an extent, Social Media and Ethics teacher Natalie Galed said that schools should still have the right to punish students for what they say online if it truly is disruptive.

“If you say something that disrupts life on campus, then it doesn’t matter where you said it,” Galed said. “Schools have the right to protect their campus and the people on their campus…If a student went online and threatened something…that impacts the actual environment of school, then the schools should have the right to regulate that.”

As far as the exact criteria as to what constitutes “disruptive speech” outside of school, that’s where the Supreme Court’s ruling is needed (if they choose to limit off-campus speech at all), but it’s crucial that a standard similar to Tinker vs. Des Moines is applied.

In the end, this decision will only directly apply to public schools, as private institutions have the right to limit free speech. Yet, private institutions pride themselves as being open to free thought and expression, so they will likely follow whatever precedent is set, albeit loosely. 

Regardless, it is pivotal that a standard for assessing freedom of speech off-campus is put in place, and it will be fascinating to see what the court decides.