In Upholding Student Speech Rights, Supreme Court Stresses Schools’ Duty To Protect Students From Bullying

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June 23, 2021
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Today, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Mahanoy Area School District in eastern Pennsylvania didn’t have the authority to regulate the off-campus speech of a high school student suspended after using expletives on social media, but it also highlighted situations that call for school intervention, including serious or severe bullying or harassment targeting particular individuals. 

Lambda Legal Counsel and Students’ Rights Strategist Paul D. Castillo released the following statement: 

“Today the Supreme Court did the right thing by recognizing and upholding students’ off-campus free speech rights. Free speech rights for students are particularly important for LGBTQ+ students who are often punished inappropriately in educational environments simply for engaging in coming-out speech or other forms of expression that affirms who they are. At the same time, the Supreme Court correctly acknowledged that schools do have an ongoing legal obligation to address bullying, harassment, and threats of violence, whether on or off-campus, that could have devastating or deadly consequences students if it goes unchecked. 

“Schools have a responsibility to respond to harmful behavior that targets a student, particularly students from historically marginalized groups, regardless of whether such conduct occurs off campus or during school hours. This is especially true for LGBTQ students, who are disproportionately harmed due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. We are glad this decision reaffirms students’ rights and will help provide an open and safe environment for students to express their personal, political, and creative views without fear of punishment or retaliation.”

BACKGROUND

In March, Lambda Legal joined the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the National Women’s Law Center, pro-bono counsel Ropes & Gray LLP, and more than thirty other organizations on an amicus brief in B.L. v. Mahanoy Area School District. The case involves a 14-year-old high school student who was suspended from the school’s cheerleading team for using expletives on her personal social media after she failed to make the varsity team. The post occurred on the student’s Snapchat, off school grounds, on a weekend, and did not mention the school. The two courts below ruled that her school violated her First Amendment rights.

Read the full amicus brief here.