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What SCOTUS ruling on free speech off-campus means for Arizona students

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Posted at 2:58 PM, Jun 23, 2021

In a major First Amendment case, the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in favor of a teen who was punished by her school after posting a vulgar video on social media.

The court ruled that a Pennsylvania high school student was protected by the First Amendment when she posted a profanity-laced caption on Snapchat while off school grounds.

The court's decision means schools that try to regulate student speech will be highly limited when it's off-campus and on social media.

Trey LaLuna just graduated from Pinnacle High School in Paradise Valley. He told us he's used to hearing and seeing posts on social media from other students, many of which are vulgar or inappropriate.

"That's just teenagers, we have sailor's mouths," he said.

LaLuna said in the case of Brandi Levy in Pennsylvania, he agrees that the school went too far when they suspended the freshman from the cheerleading team because of a post on Snapchat. She was frustrated she didn't make the varsity cheerleading team and vented, posting a vulgar message, saying, "'F*** school, F*** cheer, F*** softball, F*** everything."

"The amount of times that they would get off a zoom class and be like 'oh I hate this teacher' and use a lot more colorful language was every period," said LaLuna.

"People talking smack before each other's back has been going on for a long time, someone who's mad at a team is going to talk smack, it's just how it is. For the school to go after her for cursing is just wrong," said LaLuna.

The school is calling it a code of conduct breach, but the Supreme Court said Levy was protected by her First Amendment right to free speech and that schools are limited when regulating student's speech off-campus.

"And it makes a lot of sense because we're also trying to teach students to be engaged citizens and we want to encourage them to express themselves and they need to be able to do that outside of school in a way that they don't have to watch themselves all the time," said Chris Thomas, an attorney with the Arizona School Boards Association which works with public school boards and administrators.

Thomas said they've been looking for a case like this with clear boundaries to what the rules are when it comes to off-campus speech.

"We may not be disciplining you but if we become aware of it, we certainly can let the parent know about it and we would hope that parents would be partners with us on that to help sort of teach kids how to best engage," he said.

The Supreme Court did say there are circumstances where schools can discipline students for what they say off-campus. For example, in cases of cyberbullying, threats to teachers or students and cheating, schools can crackdown.