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Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L.

Introduction:

Does the First Amendment apply to student’s off-campus speech? In June 2021, the Supreme Court handed down a decision in Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. which helped answer the question of public schools regulating speech that happened off-campus. A student posted a profanity-laced post to Snapchat while at a convenience store complaining about her school cheer team. When the school discovered this, it suspended her from the cheer team. The Court held that even though schools may have some special interest in regulating student speech off campus, the reasons the school offered in this case were not enough to overcome the student’s free speech rights.

Before class:

Watch Tinker v. Des Moines Homework Help video and have students fill out the Viewing Guide.

In Class:

Review Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. and use the following as discussion questions.

Discussion questions:

  1. How are the cases of Tinker v. Des Moines and Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. similar?
  2. What are the key differences?
  3. In the majority, Justice Breyer states “In reaching its conclusion in Tinker, this Court emphasized that there was no evidence the student protest would “substantially interfere with the work of the school or impinge upon the rights of other students.” But the Court also said that, “[C]onduct by [a] student, in class or out of it, which for any reason—whether it stems from time, place, or type of behavior—materially disrupts classwork or involves substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others is . . . not immunized by the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech.” What do you think is an example of protected free speech for students off-campus? What do you think is an example of unprotected free speech for students off-campus?

Extension:

Have students research the other cases listed in the Homework Help video to construct a timeline of student free speech issues and consider how these cases helped shape the decision in Mahanoy School District v. B.L.

For teachers: This is from the opinion which can help with the extension.

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No. 20–255

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MAHANOY AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT, PETITIONER v. B. L., a minor, by and through her father, LAWRENCE LEVY and her mother, BETTY LOU LEVY

on writ of certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the third circuit

[June 23, 2021]

Justice Breyer delivered the opinion of the Court.

…We have made clear that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression,” even “at the school house gate.” Tinker, 393 U. S., at 506; see also Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Assn.564 U.S. 786, 794 (2011) (“[M]inors are entitled to a significant measure of First Amendment protection” (alteration in original; internal quotation marks omitted)). But we have also made clear that courts must apply the First Amendment “in light of the special characteristics of the school environment.” Hazelwood School Dist. v. Kuhlmeier484 U.S. 260, 266 (1988) (internal quotation mark omitted). One such characteristic, which we have stressed, is the fact that schools at times stand in loco parentis, i.e., in the place of parents. See Bethel School Dist. No. 403 v. Fraser478 U.S. 675, 684 (1986).

This Court has previously outlined three specific categories of student speech that schools may regulate in certain circumstances: (1) “indecent,” “lewd,” or “vulgar” speech uttered during a school assembly on school grounds, see id., at 685; (2) speech, uttered during a class trip, that promotes “illegal drug use,” see Morse v. Frederick551 U.S. 393, 409 (2007); and (3) speech that others may reasonably perceive as “bear[ing] the imprimatur of the school,” such as that appearing in a school-sponsored newspaper, see Kuhlmeier, 484 U. S., at 271.

Finally, in Tinker, we said schools have a special interest in regulating speech that “materially disrupts classwork or involves substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others.” 393 U. S., at 513. These special characteristics call for special leeway when schools regulate speech that occurs under its supervision.