Court rules that a school violated a cheerleader’s rights when she was kicked off the team for swearing.
A federal judge in Pennsylvania has ruled on behalf of a high school cheerleader who was kicked of the junior varsity squad for using the F-word more than once in a Snapchat post after being disappointed at tryouts. U.S. District Judge A. Richard Caputo, appointed by former U.S. President Bill Clinton, ruled that the Mahanoy Area School District violated the student’s First Amendment rights, particularly because the teenager “transmitted the post on a Saturday off school grounds,” Caputo noted.
The student’s post depicted herself and a friend holding up their middle fingers with the text, “f— school f— softball f— cheer f— everything.” She was dressed in street clothes and standing in front of “a local store and student stomping ground,” Caputo wrote, adding, “the teen had posted on Snapchat in May 2017 after she was placed once again on the junior varsity squad at the end of her freshman year. She had hoped to win a spot on the varsity squad. To add insult to injury, an incoming freshman made the varsity squad.”
The cheerleading coaches decided to subsequently suspend the cheerleader from participating in the squad for one year, citing cheerleading rules which allegedly bar disrespectful behavior and “online posts of negative information about cheerleading.”
Caputo cited a 1969 Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District in his decision. This case involved students suspended for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. The general rule of that case “is that student speech can be regulated only if it would substantially disrupt school operations or interfere with the rights of others,” the judge wrote, adding that in the current case, “the school district failed to show that her Snapchat post created any substantial disorder or likelihood thereof.”
The school district had argued that the teen and her mother “voluntarily waived the teen’s First Amendment rights by agreeing to the cheerleading rules before the tryouts.” Yet, Caputo indicated the school had not “supplied enough evidence of a knowing and intelligent waiver, and conditioning extracurricular participation on a waiver of a constitutional right is coercive.”
The district also argued stated there is no constitutional right to participate in an extracurricular activity such as cheerleading. Caputo responded that the district was placing “the constitutional cart before the horse…The district was infringing the right to freedom of speech, not the right to participate in a sport.”
“The court recognized that public schools have no authority to discipline students for off-campus speech, except in very narrow circumstances,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which represented the student. “Public schools need to stick to educating students and stay out of the business of disciplining them during their off hours.”
“Cheerleading has always been important to her not-withstanding that she once chose to blow off some steam and express frustration with the Snapchat post that led to the ruling yesterday and all of this litigation,” attorney Tack-Hooper explained.
The judge ultimately ordered the district to pay nominal damages of $1 to the cheerleader and to expunge any record of disciplinary action against the student.