Teens and social media: The two go hand in hand. And I don’t know a single parent who doesn’t fret about the challenges of apps like TikTok and Snapchat. Few parents, however, expect that their teen’s snaps could result in a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. But that’s exactly what happened with the Levy family.
The dispute all stems from a snap then-14-year-old Brandi Levy shared with her 250 Snapchat friends a few years ago. When she didn’t make Mahanoy Area High School’s varsity cheerleading squad, she took social media to vent. “Fuck school, fuck softball, fuck cheer, fuck everything,” she captioned the photo of her and a friend holding up their middle fingers.
Like most snaps, the photo disappeared after 24 hours and she thought that would be the end of it.
“Instead, an adolescent outburst and the adult reaction to it have arrived at the Supreme Court, where the case could determine how the First Amendment’s protection of free speech applies to the off-campus activities of the nation’s 50 million public school students,” reported The Washington Post.
Even though the snap disappeared after 24 hours, one of the quintessential features of the popular app, someone had taken a screenshot of her snap and Levy’s rant made its way to the daughter of the team’s coach. A few cheerleaders complained, and the coaches suspended Levy from the team for the year. Levy’s parents disagreed with that decision and, with help from the ACLU, the dispute made its way through the courts, until it landed at the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Justin Driver, a Yale law professor and author of “The Schoolhouse Gate: Public Education, the Supreme Court, and the Battle for the American Mind,” has called it “the most momentous case” involving student speech in more than 50 years.
That isn’t an exaggeration. It really is that big a deal.
Not since Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District has a case had such potentially far-reaching impact. Tinker – the quintessential student free speech case from 1969 – involved two students who refused to remove black armbands to protest the Vietnam war. In that case, the Supreme Court held that the school couldn’t require the students to remove the armbands, stating famously that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
But Tinker also held that students’ First Amendment rights don’t extend to situations that cause or are likely to cause a “material and substantial” disruption to school functions.
Chances are, when you heard the facts of Levy’s case, you may have had a knee-jerk reaction one way or another. But this case isn’t that cut and dry.
“This may seem like a very narrow case about a minor temper tantrum on Snapchat, but it is about speech anywhere and everywhere, by students of all ages,” Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, told the Washington Post.
On the one hand, Levy wasn’t on school property when she went on her social media rant. She was miles away, and her actions happened on a weekend.
On the other hand, students are often required to comply with codes of conduct, and she wasn’t deprived of her right to a public education; she was kicked off the cheer team. According to ABC News, Levy had signed a cheerleading code that required “respect” and “no negative information” to be communicated while on the team.
“Coaches and school administrators, not federal courts, should decide whether the coach can bench someone or ask a player to apologize to teammates,” the school district argued in its brief to the Supreme Court. “The First Amendment is not a tool for micromanaging school determinations.”
The case delves into the murky area of digital communications, with the school district arguing that parameters on speech are necessary to prevent bullying and other dangerous behavior. The Biden administration, which supports the district’s case, identified a number of scenarios that require school intervention.
“The laws in the District of Columbia and at least 25 states require schools to address off-campus harassment or bullying that substantially disrupts the school environment or interferes with other students’ rights,” the administration’s brief states. “Students who encourage classmates to kill themselves, target black classmates with photos of lynchings, or text the whole class photos of fellow students in compromising positions, do not limit their invective to school hours.”
In Levy’s corner, folks are quick to point out that this isn’t a case of online bullying.“Schools need to deal with cyberbullying,” said Witold J. Walczak, head of the Pennsylvania ACLU. “What separates us [the ACLU and the school board] is how much power the school is given to address those problems. We feel like the school district’s approach is too big a power grab.”
Brandi Levy’s father echoes these concerns, saying that the school overreached beyond its authority. “If they would have just taken her aside and said, ‘Watch; be careful.’ But the action they took, I think reached above and beyond where they should be,” Larry Levy, Brandi’s dad, told ABC News.
As if the underlying issue weren’t complicated enough, the case has created very strange bedfellows, with nine Republican state attorneys general – along with 100 organizations and 250 individuals – supporting the teen’s lawsuit.
This is undoubtedly a complicated case, with far-reaching implications about students’ free speech rights – both on and off school grounds. Given the current composition of the Court, and Chief Justice Roberts’ propensity to uphold a broad interpretation of the First Amendment, the odds seem to be in Levy’s favor. Then again, the case involves an extracurricular activity outside of the parameters of the classroom. So is it a case of government infringing on free speech, or a case of facing the consequences for your actions?
Regardless of how the Court rules, however, one thing is clear: this case is a major teachable moment for our teens and a stark reminder that freedom of speech doesn’t mean a freedom from consequences. And when it comes to digital communications, nothing is “private” … and screenshots last forever. Even if the original does disappear after 24 hours.