On September 25, 2017, the ACLU-PA filed suit on behalf of B.L., a high school sophomore who has been cheerleading since she was in fifth grade and was expelled from the team as punishment for out-of-school speech. The case involves a First Amendment challenge to the Mahanoy Area High School’s “Cheerleading Rules,” which prohibit cheerleaders from posting any “negative information” about cheerleading online. B.L. was kicked off the junior varsity cheerleading squad for posting a Snap to Snapchat on the weekend that school officials believed was “negative,” “disrespectful,” and “demeaning.” Snapchat is a popular social media smartphone app that allows users to post images that are accessible on the platform only for short periods of time—ranging from one second to 24 hours—and are self-deleting. The post for which B.L. was punished was a photo of her and a friend at a convenience store holding up their middle fingers with the text “fuck school fuck softball fuck cheer fuck everything” superimposed on the photo. B.L. posted the Snap on a Saturday, and made it available only to her Snapchat friends.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit previously held, in two other ACLU-PA cases, that schools cannot punish students for out-of-school speech that does not pose a risk of substantially, materially disrupting school activities. B.L.’s lawsuit challenges the Cheerleading Rules on their face and as applied to B.L. to punish her for the content of her out-of-school speech.
Along with the complaint, the ACLU-PA also filed a motion for temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction asking the court to order the District to immediately and temporarily restore B.L. to the team while the litigation proceeds.
On September 26, 2017, the Court issued a temporary restraining order restoring B.L. to the cheerleading squad.
On October 5, 2017, the Court granted plaintiff’s motion for preliminary injunction, finding that she was likely to succeed in her lawsuit, and issued an order reinstating B.L. to the cheerleading squad while the litigation proceeds.
On March 21, 2019, the court granted the plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, finding that the school did not have the authority to discipline her for her off-campus speech and that the school was in violation of the First Amendment.
In a landmark decision, on June 30, 2020, a federal appeals court ruled that public schools cannot censor students’ off-campus speech based on a fear of disruption of school activities.
After the appeals court ruling, the school district appealed to the United States Supreme Court, and the court granted the district's motion to hear the case. Oral arguments were held on April 28, 2021, with national ACLU Legal Director David Cole presenting arguments on B.L.'s behalf, and, on June 23, 2021, the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that B.L.'s speech was protected by the First Amendment.
- Federal Court Halts School’s Punishment of Student’s Off-Campus Speech - 10/5/17
- Federal Court Rules in Favor of Schuylkill County Student's Free Speech Rights in Off-Campus Incident - 3/22/19
Federal Appeals Court Upholds and Expands Students’ Free Speech in Schuylkill County Case- 6/30/20
U.S. Supreme Court Will Hear ACLU-PA Student Free Speech Case - 1/9/21
ACLU Urges U.S. Supreme Court to Protect Students’ First Amendment Rights When They’re Out of School - 4/28/21
Supreme Court Decision Rules to Protect Students’ Full Free Speech Rights - 6/23/21