Federal Court Says Teen's 'Fuck Cheer' Is Protected Speech
from the fuck-censorship dept
Pennsylvania teens will be relieved to know their Constitutional right to disparage their school remains intact. A lawsuit brought by a student who was suspended for expressing her displeasure with several school traditions has been given the federal court seal of approval.
At the heart of the case is a string of Snapchatted F-bombs. The student, referred to only as B.L., expressed her displeasure using curse words — a teen tradition that dates back at least as far as the traditions she expressed her displeasure with. The decision [PDF] recounts the sweary events leading to this Constitutional violation, which began with B.L. being passed over for a varsity cheerleading spot:
Posing in street clothes with a friend, middle fingers raised, B.L. took a “selfie” at the Cocoa Hut, a local store and student stomping ground. On top of the photo, B.L. added the following text: “fuck school fuck softball fuck cheer fuck everything.” B.L. then posted the captioned photo—the “Snap”—on her private Snapchat account, where it could have been viewed briefly by about two-hundred and fifty (250) of her friends. She posted a follow-up Snap just after, reading: “Love how me and [my friend] get told we need a year of jv before we make varsity but that doesn’t matter to anyone else?” Many of B.L.’s friends on Snapchat are students at District schools; some are fellow cheerleaders.
One of B.L.’s Snapchat “friends” — who also happened to be a cheerleader and a cheerleading coach’s daughter — took screenshots of this Chat and brought it to the cheerleading coaches. The coaches kicked B.L. off the team, suspending her from cheer activities for an entire year. Supposedly, this was due to multiple complaints about words that routinely come out of teenagers’ mouths.
The coaches also claimed B.L. had violated the cheer team rules with her “fuck cheer” post. Specifically, her Snapchat post violated the “Negative Information Rule,” which states:
“There will be no toleration of any negative information regarding cheerleading, cheerleaders, or coaches placed on the internet.”
The court notes that students’ Constitutional rights do not end when they enter the school. The district argues students’ rights “end” if students waive these rights, as it claims B.L. did when she agreed to not post “negative information” about the cheer program on the internet. The court points out this waiver could hardly be considered voluntary.
[N]either B.L. nor her mother had bargaining equality with the coaches or the school; the Cheerleading Rules were not subject to negotiation; and B.L. and her mother were not represented by counsel when they agreed B.L. would abide by the Rules. Additionally, conditioning extracurricular participation on a waiver of a constitutional right is coercive.
After deciding B.L. retained her First Amendment rights despite the wording of the cheer team agreement, the court moves on to dismantle the district’s other defense: that B.L. had no Constitutional right to engage in extracurricular activities. As the court points out, this determination is irrelevant to determining whether or not B.L.’s rights were violated by her suspension from the cheer team. The district wants the court to approach the question from the wrong side. The court declines the district’s invitation to enter the argument through the back door.
I agree with B.L. What the District’s argument does is put the constitutional cart before the horse. […] The issue with this reasoning, which assumes all student athlete speech is ipso facto less protected, see Lowery v. Euverard, 497 F.3d 584, 605 (6th Cir. 2007) (Gilman, J., concurring in the judgment) is two-fold: it muddies the First Amendment analysis, and conflates it with Due Process analysis.
The right a public school infringes by punishing a student for protected speech is not the right to education or to play a sport, it is the right to freedom of speech.
In the end, the court finds the school’s punishment of B.L. was unconstitutional. While it recognizes students engaging in extracurricular activities may be subject to more rules governing their behavior, the rules cannot infringe on their protected rights. Speech that occurs outside of the school walls is not completely out of reach of the school’s disciplinary policies, but the school needs to show the severely disruptive effect this extracurricular speech caused. In this case, all the district could point to were claims by cheer coaches the f-bombs had the potential to be disruptive.
If teens dropping F-bombs on or off school property were enough to disrupt schools, approximately 0% of the nation’s high schools would be operational for more than a few hours at a time, much less the entire school year. “Fuck cheer” is protected expression. The fact that the school doesn’t like hearing its activities criticized doesn’t budge the free speech needle.