Victory! Supreme Court Issues Mahanoy Decision

Earlier this morning, the Supreme Court issued their opinion on Mahanoy v. B.L. In an 8–1 ruling, the Justices decided that the Mahanoy Area School District violated the First Amendment rights of B.L.

The case revolved around B.L., a cheerleader, who was removed from the cheerleading squad after posting two Snapchat posts, one described as containing “vulgar language and gestures.” CBLDF, in partnership with National Coalition Against Censorship and Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, submitted an amicus brief to the court in support of B.L. and free speech.

The Ruling

Justice Breyer wrote the opinion supported by a concurring opinion from Justice Alito, the only dissenting opinion came from Justice Thomas. As Alito points out:

“This is the first case in which we have considered the constitutionality of a public school’s attempt to regulate true off-premises student speech, and therefore it is important that our opinion not be misunderstood.”

The court disagreed with the reasoning behind the Third Circuit’s decision, but they did agree with their conclusion. The Supreme Court decided not to make any broad rulings on the First Amendment recognizing the subtlety of situations facing schools and the court. However, they did point out three areas in which schools need to be mindful of overstepping concerning off-campus speech.

  • in loco parentis — Off-campus speech frequently occurs when the student is under the responsibility of the parent.
  • Religious or Political Speech — Surveillance of all speech by a student, 24-hours a day, could potentially restrict students from ever engaging in religious or political speech, especially if it doesn’t meet on-campus regulations.
  • Nursery of Democracy — It is in the interest of schools to protect ideas and to teach the principles of the First Amendment. Look to the aphorism “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

In this case, the court found that, though the words may have been vulgar, B.L. was under the responsibility of her parents at the time, did not cause a disturbance to learning (Tinker), and did not grossly affect the morale of the cheer squad.

Justice Alito sums up the case well:

If today’s decision teaches any lesson, it must be that the regulation of many types of off-premises student speech raises serious First Amendment concerns, and school officials should proceed cautiously before venturing into this territory.

How Does this Affect Comics?

A win for free speech is a win for creativity and comics. New media has expanded how we interact and create. As discussed, if all speech is fair game for school oversight, students will be restricted in what they can create, including comics, editorial cartoons, and animation. Students will have to look over their shoulder if they want to share something on social media that falls outside school standards. Forcing students to self-censor or face punishment will stymie intellectual and artistic growth and devalue their experience of First Amendment rights.

The opinion released today establishes guiding principles with the idea that they will adapt to evolving technology and mediums. It is a needed adjustment to move away from rigid guidelines and to make regulation of off-campus speech an exception, not a rule. On the surface, debating over what a cheerleader posted on Snapchat may seem ridiculous, but as Justice Breyer said:

It might be tempting to dismiss B. L.’s words as unworthy of the robust First Amendment protections discussed
herein. But sometimes it is necessary to protect the superfluous in order to preserve the necessary.

Want to Know More?

CBLDF is hosting a panel on Zoom tomorrow, June 24th, at 10 am Pacific entitled Recoding Censorship. Along with several free speech experts, we will be discussing the challenges free speech faces today in the age of evolving new media. The Mahanoy case and its implications are sure to come up; you will also have the opportunity to ask questions. The event is free and open to the public. We hope to see you there!

Click Here to Register