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Friday, June 25, 2021

Thoughts on Mahanoy

SCOTUS decided Mahanoy Area Sch. Dist. v. B.L. on Wednesday. Justice Breyer wrote for eight, holding that the school violated the plaintiff's First Amendment rights in suspending her from the J.V. cheerleading team. Justice Alito concurred for Justice Gorsuch. Justice Thomas dissented, unsurprisingly. Some thoughts after the jump.

• Kudos to Justice Breyer for using the word "fuck" in describing B.L.'s messages rather than expurgating, saying "F-word," or using some stupid euphemism.

• The Court rejected the Third Circuit's approach creating a three-tier structure: 1) In-school speech subject to Tinker; 2) out-of-school speech potentially regulated by the school under ordinary First Amendment standards; 3) out-of-school speech beyond the school's regulatory power. Instead, it is two tiers: Tinker is the standard whenever schools have the authority to regulate speech, in or out of school, while some speech may be beyond the school's power to regulate.

Because of that rejection, the school district framed this as a victory, as "vindication of schools’ authority to protect students and staff and to fulfill schools’ educational missions." Sure, it owes Brandi Levy $ 1. But the school sees this decision as endorsing its power to regulate a good deal of student speech, perhaps more speech than Breyer believed he was allowing in writing the opinion. This framing shows that we can expect much litigation in the coming years over attempts to punish out-of-school speech, especially online. Many district courts adopted a more capacious understanding of disruption than Breyer suggests.

The school did not mention that it also owes the ACLU substantial (liekly upwards of $ 750,000, given three layers of review) in attorney's fees. Uzuegbunam, which held that a claim for nominal damages avoids mootness, may prove to be the most significant case of the Term. Brandi Levy just finished her freshman year of college; if nominal damages were not sufficient to keep a case alive, this whole thing would have been moot.

• The Court identified three principles off-campus speech that usually, but not always, place it beyond the school's regulatory power: 1) The school is not in loco parentis; 2) Schools have a heavy burden to justify regulating speech outside of school or a school program or activity, lest students be left with no opportunity to speak; 3) Schools should respect, rather than restrict, student's efforts to express unpopular ideas. As a result, "the leeway the First Amendment grants to schools in light of their special characteristics is diminished."

The Court emphasized that the speech was otherwise constitutionally protected and entirely outside of school, so the school was not I/L/P; that there was no evidence of disruption; and that negativity and undermining team morale are not sufficient disruptions. Breyer closes with an acknowledgement that this was a teen's snap of a profanity and a vulgar gesture, "but sometimes it is necessary to protect the super-fluous in order to preserve the necessary."

• Justice Alito's concurrence attempted to reframe the majority. It staked out a more speech-protective approach in several ways (surprising, given the source).

    • Alito said he could not see this applying to college students, given their age, independence, and living arrangements. Their has been a split about whether and when Tinker applies to colleges; the better answer is it should not apply. It was good to see someone make it explicit.

    • Alito attempted to create a taxonomy of student speech. On one end is off-campus extensions school programs and activities. At the other is speech "not expressly and specifically directed at the school, school administrators, teachers, or fellow students and that addresses matters of public concern;" this lies beyond the school's reach, even if offensive, because Tinker does not create a heckler's veto under which offensiveness equals disruption equals power to regulate. In the middle is off-campus speech that disrupts the school, such as threats, bullying, and harassment (however difficult to define). B.L.'s snap was about the school but did not criticize or deride individuals, and it did not disrupt the school beyond affecting team morale.

• Alito being Alito, it is hard not to look for an ulterior motive. He emphasizes the school's power being grounded on ILP and the limits on ILP from parents' primary control over the children. Might that be used to expand the right of parents to opt their children out from assignments and programs they deem objectionable?

Posted by Howard Wasserman on June 25, 2021 at 10:06 AM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink

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