Can Schools Discipline Students for Off-Campus Social Media Posts?

Clint Campion of Sedor, Wendlandt, Evans & Filippi, LLC

Part six of the series, Ripped from the Headlines

Think about this: today there are at least four billion active social media users in the world with teens in the U.S. spending an average of two hours per day on social media.

These staggering numbers of social media users and social media posts have escalated the potential for disruption of school operations. Under current law, school officials struggle with the limits of their authority to discipline students for their social media activity when it impacts school operations. The U.S. Supreme Court will now, hopefully, give schools guidance on the limits of school authority to discipline students for off-campus, social media posts.

The Supreme Court’s landmark 1969 decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District established that student on-campus speech is protected under the First Amendment as long as it does not cause material and substantial disruption to school. This rule has remained in effect for over 50 years.

In January, the Supreme Court granted a Pennsylvania school district’s petition to review whether school officials can discipline students for vulgar off-campus, social media posts in Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L.

B.L was a student at Mahanoy Area High School in Mahanoy, Pennsylvania. B.L. made the junior varsity cheerleading team as a freshman. As a sophomore, she tried out for the varsity cheerleading team but only made the junior varsity team. B.L. was frustrated she did not make varsity, especially when she learned a freshman made it. She was also frustrated about her private softball team and was anxious about upcoming exams.

On a Saturday, B.L. was hanging out with a friend at a store when she decided to vent her frustrations by posting a photograph and a two posts to Snapchat. The photograph showed B.L. raising her middle finger and her posts were “f*** school, f***softball, f*** cheer, f*** everything” and “Love how me and [another student] get told we need a year of jv before we make varsity but that’s [sic] doesn’t matter to anyone else.”

The post was shared with 250 of B.L.’s Snapchat friends, one of whom was the daughter of the cheerleading team coach who shared it with her mom. The cheerleading coaches discovered that several students were upset about B.L.’s posts. In response, the coaches removed B.L. from the junior varsity cheerleading team for the rest of the year. B.L.’s parents appealed the decision, but the school board supported the coach’s decision.

B.L. sued the Mahanoy School District in federal court. The District Court ruled in B.L.’s favor, finding that B.L.’s snaps were off-campus speech protected by the First Amendment and they did not cause substantial disruption of the school environment.

The Mahanoy School District appealed the decision to the Court of Appeals, Third Circuit. In 2020, the Court of Appeals affirmed the decision of the District Court, explaining that B.L.’s snap was off-campus speech protected by the First Amendment. The Court of Appeals decided the Mahanoy School District did not establish B.L.’s posts to Snapchat caused sufficient disruption to school operations under Tinker to justify B.L.’s suspension from the cheerleading team.

There is significant interest in the outcome of this case across the country. The Supreme Court received several amicus briefs, including briefs from the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, the National School Boards Association, the Cyberbullying Research Center, twenty-four states, the United States, and the National Education Association. Oral argument has been scheduled for late April 2021 and decision from the Supreme Court will follow.

We are riding a wave of social media with an endpoint no one can envision. School officials are obligated to prevent disruption of school operations from social media usage. Ultimately, the Supreme Court must resolve the tension between the rights of students to express themselves on social media versus the need to maintain order in our nation’s schools.

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