For the first time in over 50 years, a high school student has won a free-speech case in the Supreme Court.
The ruling, which was announced on Wednesday, June 23 in an 8-1 decision, concluded that Pennsylvania's Mahanoy Area School District had violated cheerleader Brandi Levy's First Amendment rights by suspending her from the team after she posted a colorful message to Snapchat.
"Schools have a strong interest in ensuring that future generations understand the workings in practice of the well-known aphorism, 'I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,'" Justice Stephen G. Breyer, writing for the majority, said according to The New York Times.
So, what exactly did the cheerleader say on Snapchat? Here's what you need to know about the landmark case.
What did the cheerleader say on Snapchat?
After learning she had not made it to the varsity cheerleading squad or gotten her preferred softball position, Schuylkill County high school student Brandi Levy took to social media to express her frustration.
"F--k school, f--k softball, f--k cheer, f--k everything," she posted on Snapchat from a convenience store on a Saturday. The text was overlaid on an image of Levy and a friend holding up their middle fingers, and the post was shared to her network of approximately 250 followers.
While Snapchat messages are meant to vanish within 24 hours of being sent, one of Levy's followers screenshotted the post and showed it to her mother, who was one of Levy's coaches at Mahanoy Area High School.
According to the Supreme Court ruling, several cheerleaders and students were "visibly upset" about Levy's posts and approached their coaches. After discussing it with the principal, the coaches punished Levy by suspending her from junior varsity cheerleading for a year, saying that her post had violated "team and school rules" due to her use of "profanity in connection with a school extracurricular activity."
In response, Levy and her parents filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court, which was found in the cheerleader's favor. The case was appealed until it made its way to the Supreme Court, which ruled once again for Levy in an 8-1 vote, with Justice Clarence Thomas dissenting.
“The majority fails to consider whether schools often will have more authority, not less, to discipline students who transmit speech through social media," wrote Justice Thomas. “Because off-campus speech made through social media can be received on campus (and can spread rapidly to countless people), it often will have a greater proximate tendency to harm the school environment than will an off-campus in-person conversation.”
On the other hand, Justice Breyer, representing the majority, wrote that Levy's posts were not sent during school hours or from the school's property and that the cheerleader posted her Snapchat through a personal cell phone to her private circle of friends. “She did not identify the school in her posts or target any member of the school community with vulgar or abusive language," Justice Breyer said.
As for Brandi Levy, she's happy with the Supreme Court's decision. “I was frustrated, I was 14 years old, and I expressed my frustration the way teenagers do today,” she said. “Young people need to have the ability to express themselves without worrying about being punished when they get back to school.”