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'Sigh of relief': Student activists celebrate ruling in school free speech case

The Supreme Court ruled public schools have no general power to punish students for what they say off campus.
Supreme Court Releases Opinions
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday.Win McNamee / Getty Images

Heidi Chapin was volunteering at freshman orientation at her high school, Houston Academy for International Studies, when the text from her mom came in.

It was the text Heidi had been anxiously waiting weeks for.

"You guys won," the text message read.

Heidi, 16, of Houston, is a member of Houston Independent School District Student Congress, a districtwide Student Voice organization and one of four student-led organizations that filed an amicus brief in Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., a Supreme Court case deciding whether schools could punish students for off-campus speech.

"I was so happy. I guess I never really had too big a doubt. To me, it was a case that was very straightforward: Off-campus speech, if it's not harmful, shouldn't be ruled as on-campus speech," Heidi said. "That was cut and dry to me, but it's a Supreme Court case so it could go either way."

The case centered on Brandi Levy, who as a ninth grade student at a Pennsylvania high school repeatedly used a curse word in a Snapchat story one Saturday while at a convenience store after learning she didn't make the varsity cheerleading team. After the message was discovered by one of the school's cheerleading coaches, Brandi was suspended from the junior varsity team for her sophomore year.

She and her parents sued, and a federal appeals court ruled that because her message was posted off campus, she was beyond the reach of school authorities and could not be punished. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled that public schools have no general power to punish students for what they say off campus. The decision does not protect all off-campus expression, but the court suggested the exceptions, to be worked out in future cases, would be limited.

The students involved in the amicus brief said they began working on the case at the beginning of the year. After talking with law professors, students in the four organizations learned the ruling could have implications not only for what students could say off campus but also for what student advocacy groups could say off campus and be held accountable for on campus, said Jenna Yuan, 19, of Seattle. Yuan is the director of communications for Student Voice, a student-driven group fighting education inequality.

As the decision came in, student activists in the four groups that filed the amicus brief — which, in addition to Houston Independent School District Student Congress, included Student Voice, Kentucky Student Voice Team and March for Our Lives — said they felt a weight come off their shoulders.

"I think the first reaction was a sigh of relief," said Pragya Upreti, 17, who lives in Lexington, Kentucky, and is a rising senior at Lafayette High School. Pragya is also the co-leader and researcher at Kentucky Student Voice Team. "We spend so much time outside of the classroom working on advocacy for education justice issues that we really care about and to think that in any way it would be threatened through a Supreme Court case of this magnitude was really astonishing for a lot of us."

Connor Flick, 17, a rising senior at The Gatton Academy who lives in Hebron, Kentucky, and is the lead researcher at Kentucky Student Voice Team, said this victory affirms that schools abide by the democratic principles they teach their students.

"When students learn about their First Amendment rights, they should be able to use their First Amendment rights," Connor said. "Even when that's happening outside the school."

Will Creeley, legal director at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an organization that defends the First Amendment rights of students and faculty members at America’s colleges and universities, said Wednesday's decision will help define what the First Amendment means for upcoming generations and in the social media era.

"This is a really big one. The stakes were high. If the court had gone the other way, it would have been giving a green light to imposing a surveillance state on students in our public schools," Creeley said. "It's a big relief to see the court get this one right."

Those involved in the case said they worried that the social media aspect — understanding the mechanics of things like Snapchat stories — could have swayed the justices' decisions. Ultimately, the justices ruled 8-1 in Levy's favor.

Creeley said this case will now act as a road map for similar cases making their way through lower courts.

While future cases will likely refine the Supreme Court's decision, students like Pragya said the lessons of this case should also make their way into the classroom.

"In a generation full of so many youth activists, working on so many different things ... this threatened student free speech all across the board, and for us to one day in the future be able to see this in our textbooks is such a meaningful thing," she said.