Brandi Levy and the limit of the First Amendment in schools

The limit of the First Amendment in schools is once again being tested with Brandi Levy’s Supreme Court case. Levy, who was a 14-year old first year at Pennsylvania’s Mahanoy Highschool in 2017, posted an angry selfie after being rejected from the varsity cheer team. In the photo, she flipped off the screen, and accompanied the photo with a caption that said, “f*** school f*** softball f*** cheer f*** everything” (filtered). The photo made its way to the coach of the cheer team who later noted that some students were “visibly upset” by the “inappropriate” posts. Levy was suspended from the school’s cheerleading team for a whole year because of these remarks.

When posting this selfie on Snapchat, it’s important to note Levy was off-campus during a non-school day on the weekend. The administration disciplined Levy for her obscenities and her parents contested this but lost. After this loss, the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) stepped in to represent Levy in federal court where the federal appeals court ruled in favor of Levy.

U.S. Court of Appeals Third Circuit Judge Ann Krause wrote her ruling, saying, “new communicative technologies open new territories where regulators might seek to suppress the speech they consider inappropriate, uncouth, or provocative.” The school district then appealed to the United States Supreme Court to which the court granted the district’s motion to hear the case.

In 1969, the Supreme Court famously ruled in Mary Beth Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent School district that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate” of their public schools, as these rulings do not fully apply to private school students. This case was about students who decided to wear black armbands to school in order to peacefully protest the Vietnam War. When the school banned the wearing of these armbands, Tinker and other students sought legal action, which was eventually taken to the Supreme Court.

This famous case is an important ruling when looking at Levy’s case as well, because they both involve the First Amendment. Snapchat, along with many other social media, did not exist in 1969, so it is difficult to gauge the extent of the First Amendment in Levy’s case.

Grace Coleman ’24 shared her opinion, saying, “I think that– I don’t know… defamation of schools and school officials like coaches should be censored because at some point, the school loses respect and authority.”

“If they rule in favor of the school district that will basically mean no one at public schools can say bad things about their schools or teachers. To me it seems like an unfair restriction of freedom of speech; I hope Levy wins,” said Hunter Bridgett ’24.

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer asked “she used swear words — unattractive swear words — off campus. But did that cause a material and substantial disruption? If using those words off campus were the issue, my goodness, every school in the country would be doing nothing but punishing.”

Brett Kavanaugh, another Supreme Court Justice, responded to the coaches’ reactions agreeing their responses were a “bit of an overreaction.”

When Levy joined the Cheer team, according to the school, she did agree to refrain from using “foul language and inappropriate gestures” as well as agreeing to not post “any negative information regarding cheerleading, cheerleaders, or coaches” on the internet or on online social media platforms, which would include Snapchat. The school’s cheer coaches suspended her on the basis of these agreements, which she had violated.

Levy, now 18 years old and studying accounting at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, said to the Philadelphia Inquirer, “This is how kids today express themselves and they should be able to do that without worrying about being punished at school.”

The case is currently being argued in the Supreme Court and a ruling is expected by June of this year. The ACLU’s national director David Cole argued to the court April 28:

“Outside school [students] should have the same free speech rights that everyone else has. If the school prevails here, young people will have nowhere they can speak freely without fear that a school official will punish them.”

Once reviewing the case, an anonymous HW student said, “I guess I can see where the school is coming from, but it seems like schools in general would be given and would have too much power to regulate speech if the court ruled in favor of the school. I’m assuming that would even mean you could not bad-mouth your school from your home, which seems kind of insane; I think everyone does that now.”

When asked about their opinions on the case, three additional students have announced their opinions on the case, all wishing Levy wins because a ban on talking bad about your school would affect everyone. In the words of one of the students “everybody currently talks bad about their schools, so this would change a lot.”

As opinions on Levy’s case clearly vary, it’s no surprise the case is now being tried at the Supreme Court. This historical decision could really affect students’ free speech in school environments for years to come.