For the first time in more than fifty years, the Supreme Court has sided with a student in a free-speech case.
On Wednesday, June 23, 2021, in an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court upheld the Court of Appeals finding that a Pennsylvania school district’s punishment of a cheerleader who posted a profane rant on social media was too severe and violated the student’s First Amendment rights. However, the Court declined to adopt the broader rule saying schools never have a role in disciplining students for off-campus speech.
Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Breyer indicated that in some instances, such as severe bullying or harassment, threats aimed at teachers or students, and rule-breaking, schools may be required to take action. However, Breyer also made it clear that schools have less power over off-campus speech than on-campus speech. “When it comes to political or religious speech that occurs outside school or a school program or activity, the school will have a heavy burden to justify intervention,” wrote Breyer. In his dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas noted that schools, “historically could discipline students in circumstances like those presented here,” and that lower courts will be “at a loss” in trying to apply the ruling.
This ruling leaves the door open for future cases involving student free speech to reach the highest court in the land.
OMLO will continue to monitor these developments carefully. This article is for informational purposes only and only provides an overview of specific developments. It is not intended to be, and should not be construed as, legal advice for any particular fact situation. For actual legal advice and specifics pertaining to your governmental entity, please contact your OMLO attorney for assistance.