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Student free speech makes it to the Supreme Court in former high school cheerleader’s case

The social media platform Snapchat, the "F-word," and cheerleading made its way to the Supreme Court Wednesday, in a battle over student free speech. The Supreme Court ruled in 1969 that public schools could punish disruptive student speech in school, 18-year-old Brandi Levy's case asks whether that right extends to off-campus speech. John Yang has the report.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Snapchat, curse words and cheerleading made their way to the Supreme Court today in a battle over student free speech.

    John Yang has the report.

  • John Yang:

    Brandi Levy was having a bad week. Then a 14-year-old high school freshman, she failed to both make the varsity cheerleading squad and to get the softball team position she wanted.

  • Brandi Levy:

    I was really mad.

  • John Yang:

    Brandi, now 18 and a college freshman, spoke to us with her father, Larry.

  • Brandi Levy:

    It all happened in the same week, so I was just — at the end of the week, I was just really upset and frustrated.

  • John Yang:

    On Saturday, that frustration found an outlet in a Snapchat post that made liberal use of the F-word. Visible for just 24 hours, it showed Brandi and a friend making and age-old obscene gesture.

    As a result, Mahanoy Area school officials kicked her off the junior varsity cheerleading team on which she had won a spot.

    Did you think it was fair?

  • Brandi Levy:

    I didn't think it was fair, because I didn't say it during, like, a school activity or during school hours.

  • John Yang:

    Her father didn't like it either.

  • Larry Levy:

    The school stepped outside of their gates and took action against something that happened when it would have been my — as a parent, an issue to deal with.

  • John Yang:

    When school officials wouldn't back down, Larry Levy literally made a federal case out of it, suing the school district.

    A judge ordered Brandi back on the J.V. squad. Today, it reached the highest court in the land. While the Supreme Court ruled in 1969 that public schools could punish disruptive student speech in school, Brandi's case asks whether that extends to off-campus speech.

    School administrators and the Biden administration say it should in order to deal with bullying.

  • Francisco Negron:

    The physical schoolhouse gate that existed in 1969 has now become, to say the least, blurred.

  • John Yang:

    Francisco Negron is chief legal officer for the National School Boards Association.

  • Francisco Negron:

    The way that students communicate today, through social media and off-campus online messages, can have a tremendous impact on on-site learning. It can threaten student safety and cause emotional harm to students.

  • John Yang:

    Larry Levy says that doesn't apply to his daughter.

  • Larry Levy:

    This is a complete opposite. This is just a teenage girl expression and emotion on a Saturday. There was no specific target involved for — to be harassing or bullying.

  • John Yang:

    In today's oral argument, Justice Clarence Thomas pressed both sides.

  • Clarence Thomas:

    Aren't we at a point where, if it's on social media, where you post it on social media doesn't really matter?

  • John Yang:

    Lawyer Lisa Blatt argued for the school district.

  • Lisa Blatt:

    When it comes to the Internet, things like time and geography are meaningless. And it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever to say that the same speech is somehow within the school's regulation if it's one foot on campus or one foot off campus or at the Starbucks or at the CVS or in your car or on the school bus.

  • John Yang:

    ACLU national legal director David Cole, representing Brandi, said where and when does matter.

  • David Cole:

    And if the speaker's under the supervision of a school, you can stop him from swearing. But if the speaker is at home on the weekend, you can't stop her from swearing. Her parents could. And it's her parents' job to regulate, not the school's job at that — at that location.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    The attorney for Mahanoy had tried to reassure the justices that the school district would not be targeting religious and political speech.

  • John Yang:

    Marcia Coyle is chief Washington correspondent for "The National Law Journal."

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Justice Clarence Thomas said, well, what about controversial comments about Black Lives Matter, Proud Boys or Antifa?

    The school district's attorney said that the school district is not teaching students what to think, that that — those kinds of comments have to be used as a weapon to terrorize another student or someone at the school.

  • John Yang:

    Justice Brett Kavanaugh said school officials overreacted to Brandi's post.

  • Brett Kavanaugh:

    She blew off steam, like millions of other kids have when they're disappointed about being cut from the high school team or not being in the starting lineup or not making all-league. It didn't seem like the punishment was tailored to the offense.

  • John Yang:

    Brandi, who eventually became a varsity high school cheerleader, says she has no second thoughts.

  • Brandi Levy:

    I stand by what I said, because I was 14 years old. I was just becoming a teenager. I was frustrated, angry, upset.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    My sense at the end of the arguments was that the justices are looking for a narrow way to rule here. They may be inclined to rule for the student, but are not inclined to issue a decision making a broad statement about student free speech rights or the school district's authority to regulate student speech.

  • John Yang:

    The nine justices will have their say by this summer.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang.

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