On Wednesday, April 28, the US Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. The question here is how far can a school go in punishing a student for speech that occurred off-campus? The landmark case regarding a student’s speech in a school context is Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969). In Tinker, the Court ruled that a school may not punish a student for speech that occurred off-campus unless it materially and substantially disrupts the school.
In Mahanoy, a student tried out for the varsity cheerleading team but was not accepted and instead was placed on the junior varsity team. Over the following weekend, she uploaded a profanity-laced image of herself to Snapchat complaining about the school and the cheerleading team. She was not on school property when she created and posted the image. She was subsequently suspended from the junior varsity team for a year after school officials discovered the picture.
Lawyers for the school are arguing that in the age of the internet and social media, the location factor should no longer be a consideration as students use online platforms to bully and threaten other students. Lawyers for B.L. are arguing that she was merely expressing her displeasure and did not threaten any of the other students, coaches, or the school, drawing a line between speech that is merely an expression of one’s frustration over an outcome and speech that is bullying or threatening. It is an incredibly blurry line and based on some of the questions asked by the justices, they are clearly struggling with it.
Depending on how the justices rule, it begs the question of what about those students who express themselves artistically? Art is a form of speech and is protected by the First Amendment. If the justices rule in favor of the school, what happens when a student creates a drawing or other artwork expressing frustration or anger with their school or a particular school event? The whole concept behind art therapy (and music therapy) is the idea that one can heal through artistic expression. Multiple studies have shown how people of all ages have benefited from expressing their feelings through artistic expression as a healthy way of dealing with those feelings. If the Court decides that schools can not only punish off-campus speech but grants them a lot of leeway to determine what constitutes a material and substantial disruption, this could have long ranging effects upon those who express themselves artistically.