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US Supreme Court rules teens cussing out schools on social media is protected speech

F-bomb tirade cheerleader triumphs over school board in landmark First Amendment case

The US Supreme Court has ruled that teenagers cussing out public high schools on social media is protected speech under the First Amendment to the US Constitution, so long as it doesn't include threats, bullying or anything that disrupts the operation of the school.

The case stemmed from an outburst made by Brandi Levy on a private Snapchat group when she was a 14-year-old ninth-grader in 2017, after she failed to gain a spot on the varsity cheerleading squad at Mahanoy Area High School in Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania.

Her sweary reaction to not making the team – “Fuck school fuck softball fuck cheer fuck everything," accompanied by a picture of Levy and a friend with their middle fingers raised – made its way to one of the school's cheerleading coaches after one of the recipients took a screenshot of the image and distributed it.

Levy was subsequently suspended from the cheerleading programme for the coming school year, on the grounds that she had broken a rule on profanity in the cheerleading squad code of conduct that members were asked to sign and expected to follow.

Levy's parents appealed the suspension to the school board, which upheld it. So with the support of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Levy and her parents took the case to federal court, arguing that the school had infringed on her First Amendment rights, as the message was limited to a private group and had been sent outside school hours (on a Saturday), and away from school grounds.

They won their case in lower federal courts, but the school district asked the Supreme Court to hear it, partly on the grounds that the increase in remote learning during the COVID pandemic blurred the lines of where school jurisdiction began and ended.

Now that the Supreme Court has ruled in Levy's favour in an 8-1 ruling, American teens are seemingly free to swear away on social media and elsewhere to their heart's content, so long as they don't bully or directly threaten anyone, or say anything that upsets the functioning of the school.

US public schools have something of a history of this sort of overreach, with school authorities using codes of conduct and even spying on students through webcams in attempts to moderate pupil behaviour beyond the school gates. However, this case has placed a limit on what schools can claim as being within their purview.

“The school went too far, and I'm glad that the Supreme Court agrees,” said Levy, now an 18-year-old in her first year at Bloomsburg University. “Young people need to have the ability to express themselves without worrying about being punished when they get to school.”

She added: “I never could have imagined that one simple snap would turn into a Supreme Court case, but I'm proud that my family and I advocated for the rights of millions of public school students."

Levy's frustrated f-bomb outburst has since gained a momentum of its own, becoming an internet battle cry and even the proud legend on a celebratory ACLU First Amendment T-shirt. ®

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