Brandi Levy, a student at Mahanoy High School (MAHS), was finishing her freshman year when she tried out for and failed to make her high school’s varsity cheerleading team. When she was at an off-campus convenience store over the ensuing weekend, a frustrated Levy posted a photo of herself on Snapchat with the caption “F*** school f*** softball f*** cheer f*** everything.” The post was accompanied by a photo of Levy and a friend displaying their middle fingers to the camera.
Levy’s post was visible to about 250 people on the social media network, many of whom were her peers at MAHS and some of whom were cheerleaders. It was intended to disappear consistent with the Snapchat protocol, but several students who saw the post approached the cheerleading coach and expressed concern that it was inappropriate. The coach decided Levy’s post violated team and school rules, and Levy was suspended completely from the cheerleading program for the year.
Levy, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), sued Mahanoy High School claiming the suspension was a violation of her First Amendment rights. She won in federal district court with the court basically finding that she had not waived her right to speech simply by agreeing to the team’s rules. Furthermore, because the Snapchat was taken off-campus, the court held her speech was not subject to school-time regulation, and her Snapchat did not rise to the level of disruption required to warrant discipline. In 2020, the school district appealed the district court decision and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit again sided with Levy holding that school officials do not have the authority to discipline off-campus speech by students. The Circuit court ordered that Levy be allowed to rejoin the cheerleading team and found that “public schools have an interest in teaching civility … but they may not leverage the coercive power with which they have been entrusted to do so.”