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OPINION | NWA EDITORIAL: What'd she say?

When does off-campus speech cross the line? by NWA Democrat-Gazette | May 4, 2021 at 7:00 a.m.

Parents or grandparents of kids who attend public school today can appreciate the trouble they might have gotten into "back in the day" if someone had handed them a virtual megaphone through which their every thought could be amplified.

With Twitter or Snapchat or any of the myriad social networks available today, it's a wonder more kids don't get into some trouble.

Some do, though. And as it has for decades, the U.S. Supreme Court has to step in from time to time to figure out exactly how the First Amendment's right to free speech applies to young people in the context of public schools.

The High Court has said before that American kids don't lose their freedoms just by walking into the schoolhouse doors, but answering First Amendment questions within the school environment isn't quite as simple as it is for adults. And it's not all that simple for adults.

A young girl back in 2017 didn't make her school's varsity cheer team, but was offered a slot on the junior varsity squad. At an off-campus location on a nonschool day, she posted on a social media platform an expletive-lace rejection of cheerleading, softball, school and everything, which naturally made its way to others in the school. Unimpressed, the cheerleading coach booted the girl from the team.

Based on past cases, students' free speech is protected as long as it didn't substantially disrupt the educational environment of the school. As one might expect, school officials had a different perspective on the extent to which the girl's social media post cause a substantial disruption. And don't coaches make decisions all the time about who is on or off the team based on student attitudes?

It's an interesting case: We can remember buddies in those immature school days remarking about burning down the school when a big test loomed. But it was just banter among a small group of friends. Would it be different if the same message is posted to a thousand followers on social media? Or if it was posted in the Pyromaniacs Fan Group on Facebook?

Can the Supreme Court navigate a path that protects individual rights of free speech as well as the interests of school leaders in preserving an educational environment, which is what the public ought to expect from its public schools?

A hissy over not getting a spot on the varsity team has never had so much riding on it. If schools are going to discipline students for off-campus drama involving students' social media posts, there may be little time left for teaching.

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What’s the point?

The U.S. Supreme Court has its hands full in determining when off-campus speech is something school officials can punish.


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