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Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. (Amicus Brief)

The Brennan Center filed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to protect students' right to free speech while they are off-campus.

Published: April 2, 2021

On March 31, 2021, the Brennan Center, along with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amendment, filed an amicus brief arguing that statements made by students on social media when they are off-campus should be fully protected by the First Amendment. In Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., a high school cheerleader posted obscenities about her cheer program to Snapchat after she failed to make the varsity squad, which violated the cheerleading program's rule that students cannot post any "negative information" about cheerleading online. The posts were uploaded over the weekend and outside of school grounds, but one of her followers took a screenshot and shared it with school authorities, who suspended her. The student and her family sued the school district in response.

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that an exception from Tinker v. Des Moines – a Vietnam War-era case about students wearing black armbands in protest of the War – permitting regulation of students’ speech where it causes material and substantial disruption to the operations of school does not apply to off-campus speech like social media, at least where it does not threaten violence to others. The appeals court held that, even if off-campus speech shared on social media finds its way into school via other students’ smartphones or devices, schools do not have the power to discipline the original poster for it. 

The Supreme Court granted certiorari earlier this year, and the case is being litigated by the ACLU of Pennsylvania. The Brennan Center joined a brief drafted by EFF in support of the student, urging the Supreme Court to uphold the Third Circuit’s decision. The brief argues that the Tinker exception should not allow public schools to punish off-campus speech and that it is critical to limit the Tinker exception to on-campus speech given the central role social media plays in students' lives. Social media has increasingly become a platform for students to engage in a wide variety of self-expression, political speech, and activism. Expanding Tinker to allow public schools to punish students for speech expressed off-campus would dramatically expand schools’ power to police students’ private lives and chill important, constitutionally protected expression. 

The Liberty and National Security Program has raised concerns regarding the monitoring of K-12 students' social media, including op-eds in the Washington Post and Sun Sentinel, a resource on school district expenditures on monitoring tools, and a joint statement of civil and human rights concerns with the Center for Democracy and Technology. If schools are given broad authority to punish students for speech on social media, they will have incentive to step up their monitoring; if they are limited to circumstances in which the harm arising from the speech is significant, not merely disruptive, they are likely to spend less time tracking students’ social media.