In June of this year, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, the court responsible for federal appeals from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and the Virgin Islands, clarified a school district’s obligations with respect to off-campus student speech. The decision explains the limits of board authority. 

In B.L. v. Mahanoy, a case involving a Pennsylvania school district, a rising freshman, B.L., tried out for the girls varsity cheerleading team; while unsuccessful, she did land a spot on the junior varsity team that year. As a sophomore, she was again placed on the junior varsity team, while a freshman was placed on the varsity team.  

Not surprisingly, B.L. was not happy with either decision. Out of frustration, B.L. posted a picture to her social media account depicting her and a friend displaying their middle fingers, with a very offensive reference to the school’s cheerleading squad. The picture was observed by a teammate who took a screen capture and showed it to the co-coach of the cheerleading squad. 

Subsequently, B.L. was disciplined for the use of foul language and for sharing negative information regarding cheerleading, the cheerleaders, or coaches on the internet, in violation of team and school rules. The coaches also determined that B.L. failed to conduct herself appropriately and ultimately removed her from the team. B.L. and her parents pursued appeals to the administration and to the board to no avail. Upon appeal, the district court ruled in B.L.’s favor, the school district then appealed to the 3rd Circuit. 

The 3rd Circuit reviewed prior court student speech precedent, and found that although schools perform “important, delicate, and highly discretionary functions,” there are “none that they may not perform within the limits of the Bill of Rights,” as a 1943 U.S. Supreme Court decision phrased it. In its examination, the court noted that student speech rights are “not confined to the supervised and ordained discussion” of the classroom; instead, they extend to all aspects of “the process of attending school,” whether “in the cafeteria, or on the playing field, or on the campus during authorized hours.” Without “a specific showing of constitutionally valid reasons to regulate their speech,” then, “students are entitled to freedom of expression,” and cannot be punished for “expressions of feelings with which [school officials] do not wish to contend.”  

Importantly, the court addressed a question that it avoided answering in the past, namely whether a school district can discipline student speech that impacts only the educational environment of an extracurricular activity instead of the general school environment. The court determined that students’ freedom of speech rights extend to off-campus speech that is not issued pursuant to official school channels and does not bear the imprimatur of the school district. Accordingly, the court held, “that the First Amendment protects students engaging in off-campus speech to the same extent it protects speech by citizens in the community at large.” Therefore, the court concluded that the school district could not discipline B.L. for her inappropriate off-campus comments.

The New Jersey School Boards Association, together with the Pennsylvania and the Delaware school boards associations, appeared as amicus curiae in the case, joining in a brief filed by the National School Boards Association on behalf of the Mahanoy Area School District.  

For more information on this decision, please contact your district’s board attorney or the NJSBA Legal and Labor Relations Department at (609) 278-5254.