Federal Court Rules in Favor of Schuykill County Student's Free Speech Rights in Off-Campus Incident

March 22, 2019
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SCRANTON - A federal court on Thursday ruled that the Mahanoy Area School District in Schuylkill County violated the free speech rights of a student when the school removed her from the cheerleading squad in 2017 for off-campus expression. The student, who was in tenth grade at the time, had posted a “Snap” to the popular social media platform Snapchat that, using expletives, expressed her frustration with school and with cheerleading. She was punished under cheerleading team rules that prohibit “disrespect” and prohibit posting any “negative information” about cheerleading online.

The Snap was posted on a weekend and while the student was not at a school activity.

“The court recognized that public schools have no authority to discipline students for off-campus speech, except in very narrow circumstances,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which represented the student. “Public schools need to stick to educating students and stay out of the business of disciplining them during their off hours.”

The student, who is known by her initials, B.L., in court filings because she is a minor, was reinstated to the cheerleading team after winning a temporary restraining order in September 2017. Now in 11th grade, she continues to participate in cheerleading.

In the ruling, federal district court Judge A. Richard Caputo explained that the First Amendment does not allow schools to punish students for their out-of-school speech just because that speech is inconsistent with what the school is teaching or because other students complain about it.

In previous cases brought by the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the federal Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has ruled in favor of public school students who were disciplined for speech that was critical of school officials while they were off campus.

“As Judge Caputo observed, schools don’t have absolute authority over students.  Students have the right to speak freely on their own time.  And that’s no less true for cheerleaders,” said Molly Tack-Hooper, staff attorney at the ACLU of Pennsylvania and counsel for B.L.

B.L. is represented by Tack-Hooper and Mary Catherine Roper of the ACLU of Pennsylvania and Arleigh P. Helfer III and Theresa E. Loscalzo of Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP. More information about this case, including a copy of the court’s ruling, is available at aclupa.org/cheer.

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