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Court Limits School’s Reach On Student Speech

By Andrea Sears, Public News Service
For The Post Publications

WILKES-BARRE PA – Schools can’t punish students for swearing when they’re off-campus. That’s was the message last week of a federal court to a Pennsylvania high school.

The case centers on a Schuylkill County 10th-grade student attending Mahanoy Area High School, 60 miles north of Lower Pottsgrove. She is a minor, referred to only by the initials “B.L.,” who was dropped from her school’s junior varsity cheerleading squad for using profanity in a social media post that was sent to her friends on a weekend.

Following a hearing last Monday (Oct. 2, 2017), a judge for the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania issued a preliminary ruling that determined “Pennsylvania schools just don’t have the power to punish kids because they use the F-word on social media, if they do it on their own time,” according to Molly Tack-Hooper, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.

The post consisted of a photo of B.L. and a friend with their middle fingers extended, accompanied by several expletives. School officials called the social media post “negative,” “disrespectful” and “demeaning,” and removed the student from the junior varsity cheerleading squad as punishment.

The court has reinstated the student to the cheerleading squad until its final decision is issued. Due to evidence presented at the hearing, according to an ACLU media release, the court ruled B.L. was likely to succeed in her lawsuit to be returned to the cheerleading team. The case may not be over; the school could keep fighting through a trial, or appeal the decision to a higher court.

During 2011, two other but similar cases made it all the way to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. Tack-Hooper said that court also ruled schools can’t discipline students for posts to social media on their own time, when the posts don’t cause “substantial material disruption to school activities.”

“Which is a pretty high standard,” Tack-Hooper added. “So our case involving B.L., the cheerleader, really was decided by those earlier Third Circuit cases.” She noted the cases were as much a defense of students’ First Amendment rights as they were about posting on social media.

“If the school had the power to punish our client for just blowing off steam, then that would mean that schools really have a lot of power to restrict what students say on their own time, which would be a very scary prospect,” she said.

Photo from StockSnap/Pixabay via Public News Service

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