Teen cheerleader's Snapchat brings Supreme Court clash over schools and free speech
When 14-year-old Brandi Levy didn't cut college as a cheerleader for the Mahanoy Golden Bears, she listened to what teenagers know on social media.
"I was frustrated. I was upset. I was angry. And I posted a post on Snapchat," Levy told ABC News Live. "I said, 'F school, F cheers, F softball, F everything.'"
When she sent the vulgar message to her friends one weekend in 2017, she never thought she would hear about it again. But days later, the school accused her of breaking a code of conduct and suspended her from cheerleading for an entire year.
Levy's Snapchat post and punishment that followed is now at the center of a major US Supreme Court case examining the limits of school discipline and students' freedom of expression.
PHOTO: Former high school cheerleader Brandi Levy, 18, sued her school district after officials suspended her from exercising over a vulgar Snapchat post sent off campus after school hours. (Abc news)
"This is the first time the US Supreme Court has decided whether the rules that apply to children in school also apply to their speech outside of school," said Sara Rose, an American union for civil liberties attorney defending Levy in that case.
In a famous 1969 ruling, the court stated that students did not surrender their First Amendment rights at the school gate, but that educators could restrict speech on school premises if it was materially disruptive. No mention was made of how off-campus school-related speech could be handled.
"This case is so important because it impacts not just school principals in Pennsylvania but across the country to ensure the safety and well-being of students in their schools," said Paul Healy, executive director of the Pennsylvania Principals Association, who in in this case supported the Mahanoy Area School District.
Two lower federal courts sided with Levy in the dispute, ordering her to return to the team in 2017 and allowing her to continue her career as a cheerleader. Later, in a sweeping ruling, a federal appeals court upheld the decision, saying that a school's authority to enforce the rules "does not apply off-campus."
"If they'd just pulled her aside and said, 'Watch out, be careful.' But the measures they have taken have gone way beyond where they should be, in my opinion, "said Larry Levy, Brandi's father, who sued the school through the ACLU.
PHOTO: Larry Levy of Mahanoy City, Pa., Was defending his teenage daughter in federal court after school officials suspended her for a vulgar Snapchat. (Abc news)
"When they are not under the supervision of their school, the children are under the supervision of their parents, and parents should be able to decide what is appropriate for their children when they are at home," said Rose.
The Mahanoy School District, which has declined ABC News' request for an interview, says in court documents that the appeal decision threatens to handcuff trainers, principals and teachers nationwide.
"The first change is not a territorial straitjacket that forces schools to ignore the language, which disrupts the school environment," the school district wrote in its letter to the Supreme Court.
"Coaches and school administrators, not federal courts, should decide whether the coach can put someone on the bench or ask a player to apologize to their teammates," it said. "The first change is not a tool for micromanaging school regulations."
Healy said schools must be able to discipline students for inappropriate behavior online if they are clearly disciplined for the same behavior offline.
PHOTO: Mahanoy Area School District in Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania is urging the US Supreme Court to overturn a lower court ruling prohibiting schools from enforcing codes of conduct for student speech off campus. (Abc news)
"If you take part in an after-school activity and you sign this Code of Conduct, you will be held to a higher standard," he said. "You're supposed to be an ambassador for the school."
Levy claims that Snapchat did not break a school cheerleading code that required "respect" and "no negative information" to be expressed as part of the team.
"I think it wasn't because I didn't go to coaches. I didn't have the name of the school. I didn't have the names of the coaches or the names of my teammates," she said.
School officials disagree.
PHOTO: Paul Healy, executive director of the Pennsylvania Principals Association, says school officials must be able to enforce a code of conduct for students for their social media activities. (Abc news)
"This type of language and rhetoric is harmful to the school and can cause disruption in the school," Healy said. "Social media takes it one step further, doesn't it? There's a wider audience."
State and national associations of school principals, school authorities, teachers and school principals have filed legal documents in support of the school district of the Mahanoy area in this case. They warn that a decision to restrict discipline off campus would undermine security and order efforts, as well as the fight against cyberbullying among teenagers.
About one in three American middle and high school students say they have been a victim of online harassment, according to the Cyberbullying Research Center. The group found that the threat of school punishment is an important deterrent to potential bullies.
"If they realized they were going to get into trouble at school for cyberbullying, the chances of them doing so were significantly less," said Justin Patchin, co-director of the center and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. "If the courts come down and say, look, if it happens outside of school, there is nothing you can do about it. I think that may be a major concern."
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Maurine Molak of San Antonio, Texas, knows this problem firsthand. Seven years ago, her 16-year-old son David was relentlessly attacked online by bullies as a high school student and later took his own life.
"We went to school for help and since much of it was off-campus, the school's jurisdiction was questionable," Molak told ABC News Live. "And we tried to do everything we could. We moved. We spoke to law enforcement and our son David felt helpless and hopeless and died of suicide."
Molak, who heads David's Legacy Foundation, said schools across the country need more authority to intervene in cyberbullying cases and that the campus boundary should not be used as a shield.
"You had the parents of an offender who would go to school and say you had no jurisdiction for it and you couldn't punish my child because it didn't happen on your ground, on your campus, in your school walls and it just didn't right, "she said.
Molak said the Supreme Court case earlier this month could affect schools' ability to save lives.
"I don't want that to happen," she said.
PHOTO: School districts across the country say the protection provided by the first change shouldn't limit administrators' ability to maintain discipline and safety. (Abc news)
Free speech advocates said Levy's case and others who disapprove of bullying highlight that school discipline can go too far.
"In this country, we protect language, even if it's offensive or disturbing, because we believe in the marketplace of ideas. And I think that's the lesson we need to teach children," said Rose of the ACLU. "Not that the government has extensive powers to punish you for anything you say, no matter where you are."
Kimberly Diei, a graduate student at the University of Tennessee, told ABC News that she sympathized with Brandi Levy for the school sentence for off-campus posts on social media after her school tried to evict her over images she deemed uncomfortable felt.
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"I agree that there should be standards that should be set and I don't think anyone should be able to break the law off campus and then draw no conclusions from the institution," Diei said, " but as I said, nothing I did, did no harm.
The university, which declined to comment on ABC News, later overturned the exclusion decision.
"I can understand that there would be differences between adults in a doctoral program or other professional program and students. But everyone has a personal life. Some people choose to be more open with theirs," Diei said.
PHOTO: A dispute over free speech that began in Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania, has landed in the US Supreme Court. (Abc news)
For Brandi Levy, the public spotlight was never something she wanted, but now she said the Supreme Court could use her case to reaffirm the rights of teenagers everywhere.
"I just want the Supreme Court to recognize that everyone, every student and every young adult has their freedom of speech and that schools cannot punish students for what they do outside of school and not on campus or during school hours say "she said said.
Levy feels a twinge of regret about her own controversial Snapchat but did not apologize.
"Now that I think about it, I feel like I shouldn't have, but it's just - it's what it is. I was 14, I was young. I wasn't thinking," she said.
The court will hear the arguments in the case on April 28 and make a decision by the end of June.
The teenage cheerleader's Snapchat creates a conflict between the Supreme Court and the schools, and freedom of speech originally appeared on abcnews.go.com
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