×

Schools must act carefully on students’ off-campus speech, Supreme Court rules

The Supreme Court ruled that a school could not punish a student for a profane Snapchat post made off campus. Eshma/iStock / Getty Images Plus

Schools must act carefully on students’ off-campus speech, Supreme Court rules

The Supreme Court ruled that a school could not punish a student for a profane Snapchat post made off campus. Eshma/iStock / Getty Images Plus

Schools must act carefully on students’ off-campus speech, Supreme Court rules

The Supreme Court ruled that a school could not punish a student for a profane Snapchat post made off campus. Eshma/iStock / Getty Images Plus

Schools must act carefully on students’ off-campus speech, Supreme Court rules

The Supreme Court ruled that a school could not punish a student for a profane Snapchat post made off campus. Eshma/iStock / Getty Images Plus

School districts and officials were anxious for guidance about the extent to which they can police social media speech by their students, especially with heightened concern about cyberbullying and threats of school shootings.

Katy Harriger, Wake Forest University

For decades, U.S. courts have ruled that public school students “do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech and expression at the schoolhouse gate,” as the Supreme Court said in 1968.

In that case, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, the justices held that high school students who were suspended for protesting the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands to school were protected by the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech.

The standard the court set then, which has been narrowed and focused over the years, was that schools could only punish students for speech that “materially and substantially” disrupted the educational mission of the school. In several subsequent cases, about a student campaign speech full of sexual innuendo, a school newspaper article on teen pregnancy and a student-created sign saying “Bong Hits for Jesus”, the Supreme Court evaluated speech or expression that took place on campus or at a school-sponsored event. And in every case, the justices deferred to school authorities on their judgment of what disrupted their educational mission.

A case the court took up this year provided an opportunity for a wider view, specifically about what protections students might have for speech they engage in off-campus and away from school events, including online.

School districts and officials were anxious for guidance about the extent to which they can police social media speech by their students, especially with heightened concern about cyberbullying and threats of school shootings.

Free speech advocates were worried about the extent to which schools can extend their reach and control over students outside of school grounds and hours, especially given the amount of time teens spend on social media.

The June 23, 2021, decision in that case, Mahanoy v. B.L., is both a win and a loss for both sides. The 8-1 ruling, with Justice Clarence Thomas dissenting, did not give either side the clear rules they may have wanted.

It says schools are not forbidden from disciplining students in cases of severe harassment and cyberbullying that happen outside school. But it does warn schools that their attempts to regulate off-campus speech will be treated with less deference than they would get when addressing events on campus.

An elderly man with wire-rimmed glasses in a Supreme Court black robe.

Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Stephen Breyer wrote the majority opinion in the case, saying a ‘school will have a heavy burden to justify intervention’ in student speech made off campus or outside school programs. Pool/Associated Press

Disagree with this article?
Create an Opposing View
Add Related Article