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US Supreme Court sides with cheerleader in profanity case

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America's top court has sided with a teenage cheerleader who was punished by her school for a profane social media message./AFP
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Jun 24, 2021 - 10:38 AM

WASHINGTON — The United States’ top court ruled Wednesday that a teenage cheerleader’s profanity-laden social media post was protected by free speech rules, in a case that touched on sensitive interactions of technology and self-expression.

All but one of the nine Supreme Court justices found that Brandi Levy’s school was not justified in disciplining her for the Snapchat message she sent while off campus.

However, their decision underlines that schools can sanction certain speech made outside their walls, in the event of harassment or threats for example, a key nuance in the age of social media.

“Sometimes it is necessary to protect the superfluous in order to preserve the necessary,” the court wrote.

Levy was suspended from cheerleading for a year after posting a message of her middle finger and a series of profanities on a Saturday in 2017, at the age of 14, away from her high school in Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania.

“Fuck school fuck softball fuck cheer fuck everything,” she wrote in the post.

“I tried out for the varsity team for cheerleading and I didn’t make it, so I was pretty upset,” Levy told the ACLU, the powerful civil rights association which represented her in court.

The case may appear frivolous, but it touches on some key issues in the United States such as freedom of expression for young Americans, and the right to fight back against online harassment.

After Levy was disciplined, her parents contested on the grounds of the US Constitution’s free speech protections. Courts ruled in her case that the school cannot regulate comments made off campus.

“The school’s interest in teaching good manners is not sufficient, in this case, to overcome (Levy’s) interest in free expression,” the court said.

Public schools are “nurseries of democracy” and there is a need to encourage the exchange of ideas, even “unpopular” ones, according to its ruling.

In 1969, in an iconic judgment, the Supreme Court authorized students to wear black armbands in opposition to the Vietnam War, but clarified that disruptive speech could be punished.

However, in Levy’s case, the court found no evidence of “substantial disruption” of school activity that would be sufficient to limit expression.

Levy welcomed the ruling, saying her school went too far.

“I was frustrated, I was 14 years old, and I expressed my frustration the way teenagers do today,” she said in a statement.

“I never could have imagined that one simple snap would turn into a Supreme Court case, but I’m proud that my family and I advocated for the rights of millions of public school students,” she added.

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