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Student Discipline at the Supreme Court

This summer, for the first time in years, the Supreme Court heard a case on student discipline. In its decision it said again that students have a right to freedom of speech. Principals will nod their head at this reminder, but it likely won’t change the way they suspend and expel.

The student in the Mahanoy case cursed out the cheerleading coach for cutting her from the team. She posted her opinion online while at a local doughnut place. As usual these days, players saw the post and reported it to the principal. Suspension followed. The student claimed the First Amendment gave her the right to say what she wanted off school grounds.

The roots of free speech for students began in the 1970’s. The Supreme Court then recognized the right of students while at school to protest the war in Vietnam. The Court said that at school students have the same First Amendment right that every other citizen has. But, added the court, students might go too far. If their speech disrupted classes and kept others from learning, principals would have the authority to impose discipline to keep order. That line has been the test ever since.

In the last ten years the rise of the internet has seen students called into the assistant principal’s office much more often. Private comments to friends now reach official ears very quickly. Judges still followed the Supreme Court’s distinction. If you joked about bombing the school, you would not find a court sympathetic to your plea for free speech. On the other hand, if you said the principal was a child molester, it’d hard for the school to prove that your adolescent tastelessness disrupted more than the principal’s reputation.

The case of the failed cheerleader was never going to be a close decision. The main reason was that officials at Mahanoy couldn’t prove the failed cheerleaders’s attack on the team and the coach truly kept everyone else at school from learning. Her case made it to the Supreme Court mostly to decide one issue: her lawyers insisted that because she wrote the words at the doughnut shop, the principal couldn’t touch her.

The Court disagreed. The justices said they had never suggested that off campus was out of bounds. They made clear that officials have always been able to discipline for truly disruptive speech no matter where it came from — a school, a doughnut shop, a kitchen.

Beyond that, the Court said little new about either free speech or student discipline. It took pains to warn officials, again, to honor free speech. Principals have no business doing a parent’s job to teach children respect. They should think twice about disciplining kids for what they say in private away from school. They should let adolescents find out for themselves the consequences of provocative speech.

Will Mahanoy change anything? Probably not. Principals already knew two things — they could reach off-campus behavior, but they couldn’t suspend for simple ridicule. However, the decision might make even one official think harder about whether a certain Instagram post was ‘disruptive’. For that alone, the fight will have been worth the effort.