SCOTUS Opinion: Cheerleader Wins First Amendment Case Involving Off-Campus Speech

When a high school student failed to make the varsity squad, she posted her frustrations on Snapchat using vulgar language. When the school learned of the posts, the student was suspended from the junior varsity squad in punishment. The student sued, arguing that her punishment violated her First Amendment rights under Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969). The district court ruled for the student, and the Third Circuit affirmed, although holding that Tinker did not apply to off-campus speech.

The Court, in an 8-1 decision by Justice Breyer, affirmed, holding that while schools may in some cases punish off-campus speech for things like bullying, cheating, or online school activities, the cheerleader’s actions in this case were entitled to First Amendment protection because her speech occurred outside school hours, to a private group of friends, and the school was not acting in loco parentis. The majority also held that the student’s speech did not cause a disruption significant enough to overcome the protection of Tinker. Justice Alito, joined by Justice Gorsuch, filed a concurrence expanding on his view of the proper framework the majority opinion provided for analysis of school regulation of off-campus speech. Justice Thomas filed a lone dissent, noting again his view that historically schools had plenary authority over its students, and the First Amendment preserved that authority.

A link to the opinion in Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. is here: