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  • Writer's pictureDavid Wolfe Bender

Supreme Court Opts to Not Tinker with 1969 Precedent

In an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favour of a high school cheerleader who posted an inappropriate message on Snapchat, a social media network.

After the cheerleader posted a photo with a caption that included a few curse words, her coach told her she was suspended from the team for the year. She was disappointed, as were her parents, who sued the school district in federal court on behalf of their daughter. Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. was the name of the case at the Supreme Court.

New to this case? Or want a refresher? Find my old articles on it here and here.

Here's the Rundown.

In 1969, the Supreme Court determined that schools can only discipline students for speech if it causes a substantial disruption to the operations of the school. That's now referred to as the "substantial disruption" test.

In the district court, the cheerleader won. The district court judge said the student's actions did not cause a substantial disruption. But when the school appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, the three-judge panel took another step: they said that Tinker's precedent does not even apply to speech off campus. In the view of the panel's majority, they said the school did not have the right to discipline the cheerleader, regardless of whether or not it was a substantial disruption. It was a step that no court had taken since Tinker's precedent was formed in 1969.

The school, once again, appealed, this time to the Supreme Court of the United States. The school district asked the nine justices to rule that the 1969 Tinker precedent extends off campus. But the justices disagreed. Instead, they side-stepped the issue of Tinker's precedent in its entirety. They ruled the student's speech did not cause a substantial disruption to the operations of the school; and under this ruling, they didn't need to determine whether to extend Tinker's precedent. (Don't worry though: they might have to make that determination in the future, with the rise of student speech on social media).

Who Agreed

Justice Breyer — the most senior liberal justice on the Court — wrote the majority opinion. Because the speech occurred outside school grounds in a non-school-sanctioned capacity, he said the leeway granted to schools to discipline student speech is diminished.

Sidenote: Justice Breyer is under intense pressure to resign from liberal organizations across the country. If he does end up announcing a retirement in a few weeks, this could be his last opinion. But he hasn't given any real indication that he will retire or even that he wants to. In fact, he's given somewhat of an impression that he won't retire. Find more details on that here. Or here too.

Justice Alito wrote a concurring opinion, in which Justice Gorsuch joined.

Who Disagreed

Today, the school only won the endorsement of Justice Clarence Thomas, who was the lone dissenter.

Sidenote: It's also Justice Thomas's birthday today! What a day for him. He gets to blow out 73 candles and try to restrict student speech in the same day. Happy 73rd birthday Justice Thomas.

Justice Thomas said the principles of in loco parentis should have applied to this case. That's a latin term that basically translates to "in the place of parents." In modern times, it's the legal understanding that school officials should be able to act in the place of parents when choosing whether or not to discipline students. So if the school officials believe discipline is necessary, they should have the right to do it.

"Perhaps there are good constitutional reasons to depart from the historical rule, and perhaps this Court and lower courts will identify and explain these reasons in the future," Thomas wrote. "But because the Court does not do so today, and because it reaches the wrong result under the appropriate historical test, I respectfully dissent."


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