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Court sides with student in landmark off campus free speech ruling

The ACLU considers it the most expansive ruling on students’ off-campus speech rights.

  • Julia Agos/WITF

 Mahanoy Area School District

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled the Mahanoy Area School District in Schuylkill County violated the free speech rights of a student under the First Amendment.

The district removed the student from the cheerleading team for using an expletive on the social media platform Snapchat to describe her frustration with the squad, while off-campus.

A federal judge reinstated her in September 2017, shortly after she filed a lawsuit.

The court ruled public schools cannot censor students’ off-campus speech based on a fear of disruption of school activities.

The appeals court unanimously agreed the district‘s move violated the First Amendment. Two of the three sitting judges also ruled public schools do not have the power to discipline students for off-campus speech — even if it causes or is likely to cause a disruption on campus.

The student was removed from the squad, after posting a photo of her and a friend at a convenience store holding up their middle fingers with the text “f*ck school, f*ck softball, f*ck cheer, f*ck everything.” She posted the Snap on a Saturday and made it available to only her Snapchat friends.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania sued the district on the student’s behalf.

“This is an important decision because it recognizes that students who are outside of school enjoy full free speech rights, not the diluted rights they have inside the schoolhouse,” said Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

ACLU lawyers consider it the most expansive ruling on students’ off-campus speech rights in the country.

“Our client was out of school, on her own time, and not involved in a school activity when she made the Snapchat post, and the school went well beyond its power in disciplining her for her speech,” said Sara Rose, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

The student, who is identified by her initials B.L. in court documents, was in 10th grade when the case started in 2017 and graduated this year.

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