How One Former High School Cheerleader’s Snapchat Rant Landed Her In The Supreme Court

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Does Kids Have Free Speech Off Campus?

All teenagers have their bad days, but one Pennsylvania teen is paying the price after her social media rant has landed her in a lengthy lawsuit. 

The Supreme Court will debate Brandi Levy’s right to free speech all thanks to her profanity-laden Snapchat post. 

The former cheerleader was lashing out at her school and cheer team when another student reported her posts to high school faculty. Now, the Supreme Court will begin hearing oral arguments in the case on April 28 in order to decide if schools have a right to punish teens for what they say off campus and online. 

The case will likely set an important precedent for a student’s right to free speech in a digitally native generation. 

What was in Brandi Levy’s snapchat post? 

Brandi Levy was a freshman at Mahanoy Area High School in May 2017 when she took to social media to let off some steam after failing to make the varsity cheer squad. 

She posted a photo of herself and a friend posing at a convenience store off campus with their middle fingers raised and wrote, "F––– school f––– softball, f––– cheer, f––– everything."

Photos typically disappear on Snapchat but another student screenshot the image and showed it to a pupil who is the daughter of one of the cheerleading coaches. 

The coach then suspended Levy from the cheer squad for the year, a decision that prompted Levy and her parents to take a case against Mahanoy Area School District. 

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Should schools control free speech off campus?

Students’ free speech is protected by a landmark case from 1969, Tinker vs Des Moines Independent Community School District

The case protected students’ right to wear black armbands to protest the Vietnam War, affirming that personal freedoms do exist within the school gates. However, the case also ruled that free speech can be regulated if it “materially disrupts” school operations. 

There is currently no executive ruling on whether that same precedent applies to free speech off campus. 

Levy’s father argues that regulating free speech out of school grounds pushes power and rules into social speech. 

“The students should have the right to express themselves in how they feel or express their opinion on controversial subjects without the fear of being disciplined,” he says.

However, the school district contests that by sending the image to fellow students and members of her cheer squad, Levy did “materially disrupt” school operations. 

They also point out that the lines of off-campus and on-campus communication have been blurred by social media particularly now that remote learning is in place

Regulating off-campus speech is an important way for schools to control bullying, racism, and harassment that can exist within the school and online in equal measure. 

Equally, a school can play a vital role in socializing young adults and preparing them for the real world. Levy, who is now 18, is a Bloomsburg University student majoring in accounting.

If she posted the same Snapchat about a future employer, she would likely be reprimanded, if not fired, just as she was by her cheer squad. 

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Regulating students’ free speech overlooks other problems.

Though a punishment may not have been entirely unjustified, it is possible that simply forcing children not to say certain things won’t actually stop them from wanting to. 

Levy’s father points out that, at the heart of the issue, frustrated teens need more than a punishment when they have outbursts. 

“They could have brought Brandi in and say that we saw your snap and what’s going on,” he suggested. “Do you want to talk to a counselor? Obviously, you’re having some emotional problems, and let’s talk about it before it would progress into depression or something like that.”

Instead, compounding children into silence may cause personal issues to fester. 

Social media has become a common outlet for teenagers, but when your personal expression is influencing peers online, it becomes more complicated than just a simple act of free speech. 

The Supreme Court is expected to decide the case in June.

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Alice Kelly is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. Catch her covering all things social justice, news, and entertainment. Keep up with her Twitter for more.