Snapchat Logo (John Disney/ ALM)
A high school cheerleader can’t be kicked off the squad for creating a profanity-laden Snapchat post in front of a convenience store, a federal judge has ruled.
The parents of the cheerleader, a sophomore at Mahanoy Area High School referred to in court papers as B.L., sued the district for punishing their daughter for private, out-of-school speech, and asked the court for an injunction.
B.L. was kicked off the squad after a coach found out that she and a friend posted a Snap of themselves holding up their middle fingers with a caption that read, “fuck school fuck softball fuck cheer fuck everything.”
According to U.S. District Judge A. Richard Caputo of the Middle District of Pennsylvania, B.L.’s parents were told by school officials that the district had the right to discipline students for “disrespecting the school” and that the school believed the Snap was demeaning to coaching staff.
However, Caputo said the case involved B.L.’s First Amendment right to expressive speech, and because it occurred outside of school, the district did not have the authority to remove her from an extracurricular activity.
Caputo cited the 2011 U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit case J.S. v. Blue Mountain School District, in which a high school student created an online profile accusing her principal of being a sex addict. Caputo noted the basics of the case were similar in that both involved a digital medium conveying speech that occurred outside of school grounds on a weekend, leading the Third Circuit to rule that the speech in Blue Mountain was protected.
“As such, the same rule that prevented the school district from levying punishment in Blue Mountain should be restated here: a student’s potentially lewd or profane speech created off campus must not subject that student to punishment by a public school district,” Caputo said.
But the district argued that B.L.’s speech should be considered on campus, pointing to a Third Circuit decision, J.S. ex rel H.S. v. Bethlehem Area School District, that said internet speech could be “imported” onto school grounds if it was directed at [a] specific audience and was accessible on school property.”
Caputo said the district’s reliance on that case was misplaced and doesn’t comport with the court’s 1986 ruling in Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser. In Fraser, the court held a school can only limit vulgar speech that is “reasonably expected to disrupt the school.”
“The Third Circuit has plainly stated that this case does not support the idea that profane speech created off campus can be ‘imported’ on campus to invoke Fraser,” Caputo said.
Molly Tack-Hooper of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania represented the plaintiffs and did not respond to a request for comment. Nor did the district’s attorney, David Brown of the Levin Legal Group.