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This week, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals sided with a cheerleader who was suspended for what was described as a “crude, rude, and juvenile” social media post.  According to the appeals court, the student’s Snapchat was protected First Amendment speech that did not justify her removal from the cheer team.

The student, B.L., became frustrated after she made the JV cheerleading team for the second year in a row.  While at a local store, she posted a picture on her Snapchat story of herself and a friend with their middle fingers in the air.  The caption read, in part, “F_ school f__ softball f__ cheer f__ everything.”

After learning of the post, the cheer coaches decided it violated team rules requiring cheerleaders to have respect for their school, coaches, and other team members and to refrain from sharing negative information about the team on the internet.  School rules also required athletes to conduct themselves so as not to tarnish the school district’s reputation.  The parents appealed the decision up to the school board, to no avail.

B.L.’s father filed suit on her behalf alleging First Amendment violations.  The district court granted judgment in favor of the student and the school district appealed.  The court of appeals affirmed the trial court ruling.

According to the appeals court, B.L. had not waived her speech rights by agreeing to the team’s rules. In addition, her suspension from the cheer team implicated the First Amendment even though extracurricular participation is merely a privilege. Important to the decision was the fact that B.L.’s snap was off-campus speech.  Moreover, B.L.’s snap had not caused any actual or foreseeable substantial disruption of the school environment.  The Court therefore concluded that the School District had violated B.L.’s First Amendment rights.  The Court cautioned:

But the primary responsibility for teaching civility rests with parents and other members of the community. As arms of the state, public schools have an interest in teaching civility by example, persuasion, and encouragement, but they may not leverage the coercive power with which they have been entrusted to do so. Otherwise, we give school administrators the power to quash student expression deemed crude or offensive—which far too easily metastasizes into the power to censor valuable speech and legitimate criticism. Instead, by enforcing the Constitution’s limits and upholding free speech rights, we teach a deeper and more enduring version of respect for civility and the “hazardous freedom” that is our national treasure and “the basis of our national strength.”

This ruling should cause administrators and extracurricular coaches to pause before imposing disciplinary measures on a student for off-campus social media posts.  While you pause, pick up the phone and call your district’s legal counsel.  The case is B.L. v. Mahanoy Area School District, No. 19-1842, __ F.3d __ (June 30, 2020).

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