A federal court has issued a preliminary ruling that a Pennsylvania high school was out of line when it cut a student from the junior varsity cheerleading team for swearing in a weekend social media post, Public News Service reports.
Molly Tack-Hooper, an attorney with the ACLU of Pennsylvania, says the court’s message is that schools don’t have the authority to discipline students for what they post on their own time, as long as the posts don’t create "substantial material disruption to school activities."
The school could still appeal the ruling, the article says.
As more student behavior occurs in a virtual space, school administrators don’t always have clear direction over what they can and can’t police. This piece from the National Coalition Against Censorship suggests that school leaders are often walking a fine line between not interfering with students’ First Amendment rights and trying to keep what students post or tweet from disrupting what happens during the school day.
According to the Student Press Law Center, there has been no definitive guidance from the courts on these issues. “Despite the proliferation of student speech on social media and elsewhere online, the federal circuits and state courts remain divided over the level of First Amendment protection that should be accorded to such speech, created by students in their personal time in their homes or elsewhere outside of school,” attorney Carolyn Schurr Levin writes. “Whether tweets, Facebook posts and blogs are fully protected by the First Amendment, or whether schools can punish students for such speech, when done off campus, is a question that the United State Supreme Court will ultimately have to settle.”
The Pennsylvania case also raises the issue of off-campus behavior in general. While schools want the students who play on their sports teams and represent their schools in the community to be role models, courts have also ruled that school officials can’t punish students for breaking the law off-campus. In New Jersey, a student and her family challenged the Ramapo Indian Hills Regional High School District’s policy requiring students involved in extracurricular activities, such as sports and clubs, to sign an agreement saying that they wouldn’t use drugs or drink even at off-campus events or over the weekend. In this case, a state appeals court ruled that the district had not made a direct connection between students’ off-campus behavior and school operations.
In this piece for AASA, education law attorney David Rubin writes that these cases often come down to people’s beliefs over whether schools should simply teach academics or whether they should be more involved in the many facets of students’ lives.
“How much schools should ‘own’ off-campus behavior must be considered against the backdrop of this larger debate, and school administrators, as stakeholders in this discussion, should press state legislatures and regulatory agencies to adopt guidelines that reflect the value judgments of the local community,” he writes.