Toolbox Tuesday!! Cyberbullying and the Supreme Court…

We’re going to get a decision from SCOTUS sometime this year about student free speech when the student is not on campus or at a school sponsored event.  The Court’s ruling will have major implications for all school districts in the country, for their codes of conduct, and their jurisdiction over extracurricular activities.  The case is B.L. v. Mahanoy Area School District. It’s from a small district in Pennsylvania and is based on the suspension of a girl from the cheerleading squad based on her foul-mouthed temper tantrum on Snapchat.

 Many people believe that the school officials overreacted.  The girl did not threaten anyone, did not harass anyone, did not bully anyone.  She just dropped a few F-bombs temporarily on a social media platform to express her anger and disappointment at not making varsity. For this she was removed from the cheerleading squad for a year.  Over reaction?  I’m sure that Daily Dawg readers would be split on that question.

But the decision of the 3rd Circuit in favor of the student is not based on that court’s perception that the school went too Ed Rooney here.  The Circuit Court held that the school district does not have jurisdiction over what students say or do when they are not at school or a school function.  Do you see the implications of that?  The overwhelming concern expressed in numerous “Amicus” briefs is that any ruling that upholds the 3rd Circuit’s decision will undercut school district efforts to combat cyberbullying. 

That’s the position of the Biden Administration, which weighed in on this case in favor of the school district. There is also a brief filed by the Cyberbullying Research Center along with a number of other organizations including the Council of Administrators of Special Education (CASE).  The National School Boards Association filed a brief along with AASA and both the elementary and secondary school principal associations. 

You can tell a lot about the position of the parties by reviewing how they describe the issue before the Court.  For example, the Biden Administration says the issue is:

Whether the First Amendment categorically prohibits public school officials from disciplining students for speech that occurs off campus.

The ACLU brief in support of the student emphasizes the particular facts of this case:

Whether the court of appeals correctly held that a public high school violated the First Amendment when it punished a student for her colorful expression of frustration, made in an ephemeral Snapchat on her personal social media, on a weekend, off campus, containing no threat or harassment or mention of her school, and that did not cause or threaten any disruption of her school.

I offer only one prediction about this case.  I think the Court will find a way to affirm the authority of the school to take disciplinary action in cases of bullying, harassment or other threatening types of speech that happens off campus. How they will reach that result will be interesting to see.  Stay tuned!    


Tomorrow:  The 4th grader’s “essay to society.”