For months, it has been heralded as the “most important student free speech case in at least 50 years.” Today, with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., the case can finally live up to the hype.
“The Court made clear that schools’ power to limit campus speech is not unlimited,” says Jeff Rosen, president and CEO of the National Constitution Center, a nonprofit. “Schools can’t act like parents when disciplining off-campus speech. Students do have important First Amendment interests.”
Jen Reidel, a high school civics teacher in Washington state, had been following the case closely since last fall. She teaches a law and society class to students in Bellingham, and with her school still doing remote learning, she felt she had to find an especially interesting case to capture students’ attention through the screen. Just any Supreme Court case wouldn’t be enough to reach through those “black tiles” on Zoom and engage her students.
But the Mahanoy v. B.L. case presented exactly the circumstances and teenage drama she needed. Fellow high schooler? Check. Social media? Yep. Adolescent angst? Oh, yeah, replete with profanities and at least one upside-down smiley-face emoji. The case was relatable. It was undecided. And, no doubt, it could have happened to one of her students.
Mahanoy centers around a high school freshman, known as “B.L.” in the court filings due to her status as a minor, who attended Mahanoy Area School District in Pennsylvania. At the end of her freshman year, B.L. tried out for her school’s varsity cheerleading squad and did not make the team. She was instead offered a spot on the junior varsity squad. That weekend, while at a local convenience store called the Cocoa Hut with a friend, B.L. posted two photos to her Snapchat “story,” a feature that displays images for 24 hours to everyone on a user’s friends list.
The first photo included the caption, “F*** school f*** softball f*** cheer f*** everything,” with the expletives spelled out. When the content of the image, preserved in a photo on another student’s phone, got back to the cheerleading coaches, they consulted with the school principal and suspended B.L. from the JV cheerleading team for one year.