Free speech and the cursing cheerleader

It is unfortunate that a cheerleader’s obscene rant on Snapchat is the case where online speech is tested instead of something substantive, but it is also true that the most obnoxious speech is what tests our commitment to free speech. A 14 year old girl was unhappy that she was passed up for a promotion and used the F word a bunch of times in a “snap” to friends. The school then suspended her from cheerleading.

But whatever you think of her rant, the school should not be legally allowed to punish the “cursing cheerleader.” The reason is it sets a dangerous precedent: If given the authority to punish off-campus speech, can the schools be trusted to not expand that to punishing political, social or religious opinions that the administration does not like? I think the answer is a clear “no.”

Public school students do have some free speech rights while on campus, but those rights are not unlimited. The school can limit disruptions to class, for example. The advent of user-generated content on the Internet has led schools to want to police what teens say when they are off campus and out of school. This has expanded quite a bit from blogs and personal websites in the 1990’s to social media today.

But off-campus speech should fall under parental authority, not school authority. In a case like this, the ideal situation would be to informally let the parents know about the offensive language and then the parents would come up with an appropriate response.

It is true that teens can be exceptionally nasty to each other, in person and online. I am personally very glad that the Internet as we know it today did not exist when I was in high school.

But allowing schools to discipline off-campus speech creates a frightening precedent that will put a chilling effect on students’ First Amendment rights. Will students self-censor in order to avoid the attention of teachers and administrators? Worse yet, will the administration punish students for even a civil and articulate expression of their beliefs on public policy, religion or social issues, using the excuse that the students’ opinions are “disruptive” to the learning environment? Schools must not have this power.