Supporting our students’ speech


Illustration Credit: Alexa Druyanoff

Caroline Jacoby

Frustrated about being rejected from the varsity cheerleading team, Brandi Levy, a high school senior at Mahanoy Area High School in Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania, vented to her Snapchat story. “F*ck school f*ck softball f*ck cheer f*ck everything,” she wrote. The message spread quickly and soon reached her cheerleading coach, and Levy was ultimately suspended from the team for the remainder of the season. Her parents sued the school board over this decision in a case now known as Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. The U.S. Courts of Appeals ruled that Levy’s free speech rights were violated, but the school board appealed the decision until the case made its way to the Supreme Court.

This case has given academic institutions across the country an opportunity to reflect on the control schools have over their students’ actions in the internet age. School officials can see almost anything a student posts on social media, limiting high schoolers’ freedom of speech off-campus. As students, we should want Levy to win her case. The scenario of a dispute between an athlete and their coach seems so commonplace that almost any student can imagine being at the center of this case. Including social media under the school’s jurisdiction would force high school students to avoid making mistakes and remain professional at all times. This places a constant burden on students; the pressure to maintain a perfect online image exists regardless of the court’s decision. However, giving schools the right to limit what students can say or do online would exacerbate this issue.

There are some instances of online misconduct, such as bullying or discrimination, which would warrant disciplinary action from the school. In these situations, involvement from officials should be encouraged, though schools still need to know where to draw the line. In situations like Levy’s, an attempt to protect students actually accomplishes the opposite. I would caution the school against coming down too hard on students who are misguided but mean no harm. Teenagers should be allowed to make mistakes. Grappling with social media and the permanence of our words is new to this generation and should be treated as such. It is unreasonable for the school to be holding students accountable for what they do all day in their private lives when their words have no negative consequences on their peers.

The outcome of this case likely will not have a large impact on how our school specifically chooses to regulate student speech on social media. The federal government has much less authority over private schools than they do over public schools such as Levy’s. However, the implications of the case pose a unique question for private schools: if public schools have this level of control over student speech off-campus, how far can our school go? The school should take the outcome of the Levy case into account when deciding if it is within their authority to discipline a student for online actions.

After experiencing a whole year of Zoom classes, we have learned that the school’s reach extends beyond its campus. But if student speech on social media can be subject to disciplinary action by the school, there needs to be careful consideration about when that power should be exercised. Ultimately, schools must allow students to learn how to be responsible online on their own terms.