Cheerleading! Snapchat!! The First Amendment!!!

Yesterday’s Daily Dawg informed you that the U.S. Supreme Court is going to decide a case about student free speech when the student is not at school or a school activity.  Today: the background on the case.  I don’t think you will be surprised to hear how this major case grew out of a minor incident. 

When B.L. was relegated to the JV cheerleading squad for a second year, she vented her frustrations on Snapchat.  The snap included four F-bombs.  The objects of the four were 1) school; 2) cheer; 3) softball; and, just to make sure that her feelings were clear, 4) everything.  A second sentence noted how unfair it was that she and another girl, sophomores, had to spend another year on JV when a first year student was admitted to the varsity. 

The school removed B.L. from the JV cheerleading squad for that year, citing the handbook and agreement the girl had signed, promising to refrain from disrespect toward coaches or cheerleaders, and to refrain from profane language. This was a condition of being a cheerleader. 

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals held that the suspension from JV cheerleading infringed on B.L.’s right of free speech.  It affirmed a lower court ruling that ordered the school to expunge this incident from B.L.’s disciplinary record, and pay nominal damages along with attorneys’ fees.   A big win for the ACLU. A big loss for educators trying to foster important values.   

This one goes on the Dawg’s Sheesh-O-Meter.  Let me explain why.

The most important student free speech case is still Tinker v. Des Moines.  In that case our Supreme Court recognized that students have constitutional rights during the school day. They don’t lose those rights when they walk into the public school.  But the Court also cautioned judges to consider how the “special characteristics of the school environment” properly limit the exercise of those rights.  Unfortunately, the only “special characteristic” that the 3rd Circuit respects is the need for safety. 

Here’s another “special characteristic” of the public school: it’s the only public institution in our society charged with teaching values to children. The 3rd Circuit gives lip service to this, and then puts ridiculous and arbitrary limitations on how educators can teach values.  Look at this:

The heart of the School District’s arguments is that it has a duty to “inculcate the habits and manners of civility” in its students.  To be sure, B.L.’s snap was crude, rude, and juvenile, just as we might expect of an adolescent. But the primary responsibility for teaching civility rests with parents and other members of the community. As arms of the state, public schools have an interest in teaching civility by example, persuasion, and by encouragement, but they may not leverage the coercive power with which they have been entrusted to do so.

Poppycock.  It’s dressed up in lofty language, but it’s unadulterated poppycock.  It undercuts the important work educators do every day to teach.  B.L. volunteered to try out for the cheerleading squad. She promised to be respectful to coaches and the program itself.  She violated that promise and the school district applied a consequence.  It was a teachable moment.  It remains a teachable moment, but now it’s one that teaches the wrong lessons. 

The coaches and administrators in the school district learned something.  They learned that what they thought was a fair application of the rules was, instead, leveraging the “coercive power” of the state.  I bet they thought that kind of language applied to a police officer kneeling on a man’s neck—not the one year suspension of a student from cheerleading. From JV cheerleading. 

Values are as much a part of the curriculum as math.  Every day, teachers teach math, reading, science, social studies, music, art, P.E……and along with all of that, values. Judges would never limit the teaching of math to “example, persuasion, and…encouragement.”  No. We expect educators to wield the “coercive power” of the state via assignments, grades, tests, all of which carry consequences.  But when it comes to teaching the value of keeping a promise, respecting others, and accepting that life sometimes treats us unfairly, this court confines educators to only a few tools: example, persuasion and encouragement.

No doubt B.L. and her parents learned some lessons from this as well. They could have learned that there are consequences for our actions.  That things will happen to us that we think are unfair. They could have learned something about resilience.  Learning any of those lessons would have required a degree of humility.  Instead they equated a momentary teenage temper tantrum over a trivial issue with Mary Beth Tinker’s courageous protest of the War in Vietnam. 


This one is B.L. v. Mahanoy Area School District, decided by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals on June 30, 2020. We found it at 2020 WL 3526130. The Dawg hopes to see this decision reversed by the Supreme Court.  Stay tuned.


Tomorrow:  A reminder about physical restraint