Pennsylvania Court Reverses Student's Expulsion Over A Snapchat Post, Reminds School Students Still Have Rights
from the disrupting-school-disruption dept
No less than the highest court in the land said the off-campus speech of students is subject to the First Amendment, not the whims of school administrators who feel ways about online stuff. A cheerleader expressing her displeasure with school related activities posted a litany of f-bomb-laden complaints to Instagram, resulting in her being summarily dismissed from the cheer team. The Supreme Court said “fuck cheer” is protected speech, no matter how school administrators felt about it.
Students’ constitutional rights don’t disappear just because they’re students. This point has been driven home several times by courts, most famously by the Supreme Court’s 1969 Tinker decision, which stated:
It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.
And yet schools continue to argue otherwise. But these arguments are unavailing, as this recent Pennsylvania state court decision [PDF] points out. Penncrest High School expelled G.S. (a minor referred to only by their initials) for posting a band’s lyrics to Snapchat. Despite the fact G.S. did this off-campus during non-school hours, the school felt compelled to punish him for it.
Here’s how the school’s stupidity began, as recounted by the Pennsylvania court.
On April 1, 2018, G.S. used his personal smartphone to post the following on Snapchat, where he had 60 to 65 followers, including 4 or 5 other School District students:
the world is a graveyard!
All of you, I
kill off all of
you! This is
me, this is
As attuned as schools are to the neverending threat of shootings, it’s understandable the school might have been concerned by this post, which — taken at face value — appears to threaten fellow students with death. Context matters, but all context was apparently ignored by the school.
Though G.S. did not tag his post as such, the words it contained were copied from “Snap,” a song by the death metal band Spite. The only alteration G.S. made in his post to the excerpted lyrics was to add several exclamation points. G.S. did not direct this post toward any particular person or group and did not tag any other Snapchat users in it, nor did he put up this post at a time when he was involved in school-related activities. Rather, he posted while at an Easter Sunday celebration with his extended family in New Jersey.
Other students noticed the post and tagged in the school student body while reposting screenshots of the Snapchat message. Then parents got involved, notifying the Pennsylvania State Police, visiting the barracks to talk directly with troopers as well as sending emails to PSP officers. Not long after that, G.S. was visited by state troopers. His parents weren’t home so the troopers left and approached the assistant district attorney, seeking permission to arrest G.S. for issuing terrorist threats. Troopers called school administrators and informed them they were looking to bring charges against G.S.
Finally, G.S.’s parents were contacted and informed of the criminal proceedings. G.S. and his parents voluntarily went to the State Police barracks so G.S. could be questioned. G.S. admitted to making the post but told troopers it was just a quote from a band and not intended to threaten or harm anyone. None of that mattered. The DA told troopers to move forward with criminal charges. G.S. was arrested and taken to a juvenile detention center.
Meanwhile, school officials continued to receive reports about the post. A district-wide message was sent out by the school, notifying parents that law enforcement was investigating a threat by a student.
This had an immediate effect. Despite being short on facts — namely, the “threat” in G.S.’s post being copied from a band’s song lyrics — the missive from the school resulted in roughly a quarter of the student body being absent the following day. Those who did show up appeared “anxious and upset.”
Outside of school, G.S. underwent a court-ordered psychological evaluation. That evaluation cleared G.S.
His [Snapchat post] is a duplication of emotionally charged lyrics found in a . . . song that, while disturbing in content and audio, represent a low level of threat to the community. Specifically, [G.S.] does not have the resources, motivation, or intent to carry out the threat. […] His level of risk for future violent behavior is [l]ow.
G.S. was released and placed on house arrest. School administrators sent a letter to his parents informing them he would be suspended for ten days. Another letter followed, extending the suspension for three more days and stating criminal charges were being sought. Six days later, the school informed G.S.’s parents the district was seeking to expel him. Those proceedings proceeded, ignoring the facts that the post was composed of song lyrics, was not posted to threaten anyone, and G.S being cleared by a court-ordered psychiatrist.
The minor has the First Amendment and Pennsylvania’s constitution on his side. The school has measurable disruption and potential criminal charges on its side. The court comes down on the side of the student.
First of all, it points out, the school is no longer welcome to argue the Snapchat post was a “true threat.” It abandoned that argument during the expulsion proceedings.
Initially, we note that much of the School District’s argumentation is based upon its position that G.S.’ post constituted a true threat, as well as that it was both legally proper and factually justified for it to expel G.S. on that basis. […] These positions, however, misapprehend the actual reasoning employed by the School District’s hearing officer in his August 13, 2018 report. As we have already mentioned, the hearing officer declined the opportunity to decide whether the offending post was a true threat; indeed, the hearing officer remarked that “it is not necessary in this matter to make [that] determination[.]” Instead, the hearing officer reasoned that the charges against G.S. should be and G.S. should be expelled, as well as that the School District could do so without violating G.S.’ free speech rights, because his post “materially disrupted class work, involved substantial disorder[,] and invaded the rights of others.”
So, it’s down to “substantial disruption” versus the free speech rights of students who aren’t on campus or engaged in school activities. And on that prong of free speech examination, the school has no case.
In this instance, G.S. did not explicitly target specific Penncrest students, let alone the broader School District community, and he posted at a time when he was neither at Penncrest nor engaged in school-related activities. Thus, G.S.’ post was unambiguously off-campus speech, regarding which the School District’s disciplinary reach was sharply circumscribed by both the First Amendment and Article I, Section 7. Given this, and no matter how objectionable the content of G.S.’ post may have been, it is evident that the School District markedly failed to clear the extremely high bar set by these constitutional provisions and, thus, could not punish him for the disruptions that occurred at Penncrest.
The school’s arguments are bad, the court said. The school wants speech judged by its reaction, rather than its intent. That’s not the way the law works.
Thus, the School District would have us evaluate the constitutional sanctity of disciplining students for disruptions caused by off-campus speech through an analytical framework that would assign great value to the societal response to such speech, but disregard the context in which it was uttered, as well as the intent of the speaker. We decline to accept the School District’s deeply problematic suggestion. Were we to do otherwise, the result would be to imbue public schools with the power to discipline their students for publicly expressing interests or sentiments that school administrators, faculty, or members of polite society considered execrable or simply did not understand, regardless of how, when, where, or why that expressive conduct occurred.
Public schools would consequently become de facto full-time censors, preventing children from making their own decisions about what aspects of popular culture are worthy of consumption or what beliefs should be held, and interfering with parental authority, through a constant potential for punishment that would hang over students like the Sword of Damocles. Such an expansion of governmental authority would do great harm to the expressive rights of individuals still “in the formative years…”
The expulsion and suspension are reversed. The First Amendment prevails and G.S.’s record will be stripped of the district’s unconstitutional add-ons. Even minors have free speech rights and the school should have known this, given there’s plenty of precedent on the books at all levels of the judicial system affirming these rights. The school fully earned this loss. Hopefully, it will accept this ruling and stop wasting the public’s money attempting to undermine free speech rights.