Cheerleaders, the F-Word, and the Supreme Court

Four years ago, 14-year-old Brandi Levy was passed up for a promotion from her high school’s junior varsity cheerleading team to the varsity team. 

In the annals of US history, this may seem unimportant, and it undoubtedly would have been passed over in future history books had Levy, upset at her coach’s decision, not posted a picture of herself and her friend on social media, middle fingers raised, with the caption “F*** school, f*** softball, f*** cheer, f*** everything.” 

The school found out about it and punished Levy by banning her from the cheerleading team for the rest of the year. Her parents, supported by the ACLU, proceeded to sue the school for denying Levy her freedom of speech, especially since the picture in question was posted on a Saturday, off school grounds. Levy had, however, signed a document when she joined the cheerleading team in which she vowed to show respect for her coaches and teammates. 

Four years later, the case has now made its way to the Supreme Court, presenting the important question: just how much freedom of speech do students have, anyway?

The most important precedent to this case is Tinker v. Des Moines, where the Court famously ruled that a student’s right to freedom of speech does not end when they enter the building. Levy’s case, however, raises some new questions during the age of social media. What right does the school have to regulate student speech when it’s completely off-campus? Many schools have policies regarding cyberbullying, but cyberbullying also often takes place off school grounds. If the Supreme Court rules that schools don’t have the right to suspend students who make offensive posts during non-school hours, then what will that mean for rules regarding cyberbullying?

The other argument is just as complex, however. Does a school have a right to ban students from criticizing it? If students want to post on social media about issues in their school, ranging from unfit teachers to racism, can the school regulate that? What limits exist on how far the school can go in regulating student speech, especially if the speech in question wasn’t even made in school? 

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard the case, and there seems to be no consensus on which way it will rule. Judging from their questions, the justices seem unwilling to deny a student her right to criticize the school, and yet unwilling to strip schools of their ability to discipline students who say offensive things online. 

Freedom of speech is undoubtedly one of the most important parts of American democracy. How far that right extends, however, is now in the hands of the Supreme Court.