Washington, April 23: Two days after Mahanoy Area High School in Pennsylvania held its cheerleading tryouts, ninth-grader Brandi Levy was still fuming about being passed over for a spot on the varsity squad.
While a younger girl had been picked for varsity, Levy was facing another year relegated to the junior varsity cheer squad. That Saturday afternoon in May 2017 – standing not on school grounds but in the Cocoa Hut convenience store in Mahanoy City in the state’s coal country – Levy pulled out her cellphone and, along with a friend, raised her middle finger to the camera.
Levy, age 14 at the time, posted the photo to the Snapchat social media platform, adding a caption using the same curse word four times to voice her displeasure with cheerleading, softball, school and “everything.”
That posting prompted the school to banish her from the cheerleading squad for a year. It also led to a major U.S. Supreme Court case testing the limits of one of America’s bedrock constitutional rights. The nine justices on Wednesday are due to hear arguments on whether this disciplinary act by a public school – a government institution – violated the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech.
For Levy, now 18 and a college student studying accounting, the punishment at the time felt instinctively wrong.
“I was thinking through my head that was unfair, like how could I be punished for something so small? And I didn’t do it in school, so I was questioning why,” Levy said in an interview.
“I shouldn’t have to be afraid to express myself and I should be able to do it how I want to without being punished by anybody. What I said, it wasn’t targeting, it wasn’t bullying, harassment, or anything like that,” Levy added.
Backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, Levy and her parents sued the Mahanoy Area School District seeking reinstatement to the squad and a judgment that her First Amendment rights had been violated.
The Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Levy, finding that the First Amendment bars public school officials from regulating off-campus speech. The district then appealed to the Supreme Court.
Under a 1969 Supreme Court precedent, public schools may punish student speech that would “substantially disrupt” the school community. Levy’s case will determine whether this authority extends beyond the schoolhouse gates.
The Supreme Court is due to rule by the end of June. — Reuters