When James Madison & Co. were penning the part of the Constitution having to do with the Supreme Court, it’s unlikely they could’ve imagined a future in which the justices were deciding a case about the use of the F-word on social media.
The Court will hear Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., a case having to do with a Pennsylvania high school sophomore who became pretty upset when she didn’t make the varsity cheerleading team. Very upset actually. With the school, the softball team, the cheer team and, well, everything.
In generations past, she might have taken out her frustration by writing in her diary. Or by screaming into her pillow. Or by venting face-to-face to her friends. Free to use whatever language she wanted.
But she is of the generation that lives life on social media. And she posted a photo on Snapchat of her and her friend extending their middle fingers with a caption that employed the F-word in reference to the school, the softball team, the cheer team and, well, everything.
Believe it or not, the cheerleading coaches weren’t amused by her actions and suspended her from the team. Believe it or not, her dad was not amused by their actions and sued the school system, with the help of the ACLU. A few years later, the case has made it all the way to the Supreme Court.
It’s actually an important case. There’s ample precedent that students lose some, though not all, of their First Amendment rights the moment they walk onto school property. The messages have been mixed, however, from court rulings on what constitutes protected free speech off campus. With social media, even words written in one’s bedroom can be read by the entire class during home room.
Some years ago, a U.S. appellate court upheld a ruling affirming the legality of a school system suspending a student who had posted a photo of a pistol being fired at someone’s head with a caption about killing a teacher.
Before the cursing cheerleader case made it to the Supreme Court, the Third Circuit found that, in this case, previous rulings about limiting on-campus First Amendment rights do not apply, although maybe if violence had been threatened those rulings would have.
Pretty vague. That’s why this case is critical. What if the Supremes rule that anything written on social media is protected? Suddenly, bullying and threats become more commonplace in school than textbooks. Or what if the Supremes go in the other direction? Suddenly a potentially legitimate complaint about a teacher is grounds for suspension.
According to Vox, the Biden administration has weighed in, filing a brief that “urges the Court to recognize that different rules should apply to different kinds of speech.”
The brief asserts that speech that threatens, speech that intentionally targets individuals or groups in the school community or targets “specific school function or programs regarding matters essential to or inherent in the functions of the programs themselves” is different from other speech, which should receive First Amendment protections.
The ACLU isn’t thrilled by those recommendations, but they seem pretty reasonable. Kids must be free to express opinions whether by wearing MAGA hats or Black Lives Matters shirts in school or through commenting on social media. But they can’t be allowed to attack or incite or to substantially disrupt the school day.
Even today, when seemingly anything goes on the internet, the F-word is still a pretty big deal. You won’t see it in anything we write, in print or online. It’s surely not a good idea to use it criticize your school and a team you want to be a part of. But it should be constitutionally protected.