WASHINGTON: Fourteen-year-old Brandi Levy had a day when she just wanted to scream. He did so, in a publication of obscure languages Snapchat which has probably ended before the Supreme Court in the most significant case of student speech in over 50 years.
The question is whether public schools can discipline students about something they say off campus. The issue is especially significant at a time of remote learning due to the coronavirus pandemic and a growing awareness of the pernicious effects of online harassment.
The arguments are filed Wednesday, over the phone, over the pandemic, in a court in which several judges have school-age children or have recently done so.
The case has its roots in the case of Vietnam-era Des Moines High School, Iowa, which suspended students wearing bracelets to protest the war. In a decisive ruling, the Supreme Court sided with the students and ruled that students do not “divert their constitutional rights to freedom of expression or expression at the school doorstep.”
Since then, the courts have struggled with the outlines of Tinker’s decision against Des Moines in 1969.
Levy’s case has none of Tinker’s high motives and more than his proportion of teenage anxiety.
Levy and a friend were at a convenience store in their hometown, Mahonoy City, Pennsylvania, when he went to social media to express his frustration at being kept one more year on the junior college cheerleading staff. of high school.
“F — school f — softball f — cheer f — everything,” Levy wrote, in a post that also contained a photo where she and a classmate raised their middle fingers.
The site was brought to the attention of the team’s coaches, who suspended Levy from the cheerleading team for a year.
Levy, now 18, is finishing his first year in college. “I was a 14-year-old. I was upset, I was angry. Everyone, every 14-year-old talks like that at some point,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Her parents didn’t know anything about the Snapchat message until it was suspended, she said. “My parents were more concerned about how I felt,” Levy said, adding that she was not grounded or punished for what she was doing.
Instead, her parents filed a federal lawsuit, alleging that the suspension violated her daughter’s constitutional rights to speak.
The lower courts agreed and returned her to the team of cheerleaders. The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia ruled that “Tinker does not apply to off-campus speech.” The court said it would leave for another day “the implications of the First Amendment of off-campus student discourse that threatens violence or harasses others.”
But the school district, education groups, the Biden administration and anti-bullying organizations said in court that the appellate court goes too far.
“The first amendment categorically does not prohibit public schools from disciplining students for off-campus speech,” acting Acting Attorney General Elizabeth Prelogar wrote on behalf of the administration.
Philip Lee, a law professor at Columbia District University who has written about the regulation of cyberbullying, said it makes no sense to draw the line of student speech on the edge of campus.
“Most cyberbullying content is created off-campus on computers, iPads, all kinds of electronic devices,” said Lee, who joined a legal brief with other education academics calling for a nuanced approach to regulating the speech of students in the Internet age.
“But at the same time, you don’t want schools to control everyone’s speech at home,” he said.
The Mahanoy area school district declined to comment on the case, said her attorney, Lisa Blatt.
But in his writing for the district, Blatt wrote, “This case is about how schools approach bad days.”
Schools should not be forced to “ignore speech that disrupts the school environment or invades the rights of other students just for students to throw that speech from five feet outside the school door,” he said. write Blatt.
The school’s approach would allow educators to monitor what students say throughout the day, said Witold “Vic” Walczak of American Union of Civil Liberties, which represents Levy.
“And that’s super dangerous. Not only would students like Brandi not be able to express outbursts of frustration that aren’t threatening and harassing, but it would give schools a chance to regulate important political and religious discourse,” Walczak said.
Behind Levy has formed an unusual alliance of conservative and liberal interest groups, pointing to the danger of expanding school regulation of student speech.
The Alliance for the Defense of Freedom and the Christian Legal Society urged the court to uphold the appeal because of the “dangers of schools governing off-campus discourse. Religious discourse, in particular, provokes debate. and ignites passions. “
Mary Beth and John Tinker, the brothers at the center of the 1969 case, are also alongside Levy. His protest, updated for the digital age, would have included a social media component, perhaps a black bracelet digitally imposed on his school logo, they wrote in a brief court.
The results proposed by the school district would have left them subject to discipline, the Tinkers wrote.
Walczak, el ACLU lawyer, acknowledged that “speech here is not the most important thing in the world. It is not a political or religious speech.”
But Levy’s explosion has made her a possible successor to the Tinkers and their protest against the war of the 1960s.
“I’m just trying to show that young students and adults like me shouldn’t be punished for expressing their own feelings and letting others know how they feel,” Levy said.