Federal Court in Wilkes-Barre Stops School from Disciplining Cheerleader for Off-campus Speech
Yesterday, federal District Court Judge A. Richard Caputo issued a preliminary injunction forbidding the Mahanoy School District from punishing one of its cheerleaders for an off-campus Snapchat post.
The minor plaintiff, identified as “B.L.” is a sophomore at the Mahanoy Area High School in Schuylkill County and is a member of the Junior Varsity cheerleading squad.
Team Rule Prohibits Foul Language
The school board empowered its coaches to adopt rules for students participating in the cheerleading program. The coaches created a rule forbidding the use of foul language and negative internet postings:
“Please have respect for your school, coaches, teachers, and other cheerleaders and teams. Remember, you are representing your school when at games, fundraisers, and other events. Good sportsmanship will be enforced, this includes foul language and inappropriate gestures…. There will be no toleration of any negative information regarding cheerleading, cheerleaders, or coaches placed on the internet.”
The Offensive Snap
On May 28, 2017, B.L. posted a “Snap” featuring a photo of her and a friend holding up their middle fingers with the text, “fuck school fuck softball fuck cheer fuck everything” superimposed on the image. B.L. took the Snap at the Cocoa Hut–a local convenience store–on the weekend when she was not participating in any school activity. Notably, this Snap did not specifically mention the High School or picture the High School. Further, the Snap was only shared with Plaintiff’s friends on Snapchat, and thus was not available to the general public. B.L. testified on Monday that the Snap could have reached about 250 people.
Dismissal from Team for “Disrespect”
Five days after B.L. sent the Snap, one of the cheerleading squad’s coaches pulled B.L. out of class to inform her that she was dismissed from the cheerleading squad. The coach produced a printout of Plaintiff’s Snap and told Plaintiff that the Snap was “disrespectful” to the coaches, the school, and the other cheerleaders.
Judge Caputo noted that the District knew the Snap was produced off of school property during the weekend when no school event was in progress.
Efforts to Reinstate Unsuccessful
After efforts failed to obtain her reinstatement, the ACLU sued on B.L.’s behalf in the federal court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania claiming that the District violated B.L.’s first amendment rights.
Judge Caputo agreed and ordered the school to reinstate B.L. to the cheerleading team pending a final ruling.
School’s Discipline Violates 1st Amendment
The court said that schools cannot punish students for private, out-of-school speech that does not materially disrupt school activities. Notably, the District admitted that B.L. was only punished because of the profanity contained within her Snap, not because school officials had a reasonable fear of disruption. The judge criticized the coach’s rules as giving the school an impermissible amount of discretion to censor student speech.
Although the Court’s order is by definition only “preliminary,” these types of injunctions are issued only when a plaintiff can prove that she is likely to succeed on the merits of her claim. Since it appears that most of the facts were not in dispute, the Court will likely issue a permanent injunction either by stipulation or after a formal trial.