Right for US students to speak freely off campus upheld

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”117096″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]A high school cheerleader has won an important victory for the right of students to express their opinions freely while off campus.

At the end of June, the US Supreme Court ruled eight to one that the rights of high school student Brandi Levy had been violated in a case dating back to 2017.

After failing to make the varsity cheerleading team, Levy had posted profanity-laced criticisms of the team roster on Snapchat while off campus at a local convenience store. The team captain kicked her off the junior varsity cheerleading team for a year as punishment.

The Supreme Court was asked to consider whether schools had the right to regulate off-campus speech; it ruled that her posts did not disrupt school operations so Levy’s rights had been violated. The court maintained that schools have a right to regulate speech in some “school-related, off-campus activities” without defining what that would look like.

David Cole, the legal director of the ACLU, called the ruling a victory for students, saying “the message from this ruling is clear – free speech is for everyone, and that includes public school students”. The director of the Pennsylvania ACLU, which represented Levy, characterised the precedent established by the ruling, saying they successfully argued that “students have greater free speech rights out of school and on their own time.”

Despite the nature of her comments, Levy was motivated to fight for her rights.  She commented publicly that she was proud to have advocated for the rights of students saying, “young people need to have the ability to express themselves without worrying about being punished when they get to school”.

Recent graduates from Blake High School in Maryland broadly agree with the principle the court ruled on – that her speech did not disrupt the safety of the school.

Cole Shankel, class of 2023, said, “She’s overreacting… cheerleading is lame,” but added, “I don’t think public schools should be allowed to punish students for off-campus speech.”

Jeniffer Ventura, class of 2021, pointed out, “Being held accountable for your actions online is important,” expressing concern about online hate speech and racism affecting the safety and security of the community. Julian Kabik, also the class of 2021, stated simply, “If you are not making a deliberate threat online, then I don’t think you should be punished.”

This is the first student free speech case to favour students since the landmark 1969 case Tinker v Demois. The case considered students who had been suspended for wearing black armbands in protest at the war in Vietnam; the court ruled schools must show a substantial disruption to school operations, besides the speech being unpleasant, to restrict a student’s right to free speech.

The right of students to exercise free speech established in the case has been eroded by others since then. In 1986, Bethel v Fraser ruled that schools could regulate certain styles of expression if they were sexually vulgar. In 1989, in Hazelwood v Kuhlmeier, the court ruled schools had the right to regulate the content of school publications. In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled in Morse v Frederick that schools may restrict speech at or in view of a school-supervised event if it promoted illegal drug use. The US Court of Appeals Fourth Circuit Court in 2013 and Ninth Circuit Court in 2014 ruled a student’s dress could be restricted in two separate cases related to wearing the confederate flag or American flag, respectively. The courts ruled student dress had incited disruption, and the Supreme Court declined to hear both cases.

The Levy ruling has broken the trend in student speech law, affirming students’ off-campus rights and considering the role of extracurricular activities for the first time. A ruling against Levy would have further crippled the original 1969 ruling, allowing schools to restrict students based on their speech being unpalatable and extending a school’s authority to restrict student speech to include online and off-campus speech.

Despite this, the Levy ruling is not a decisive victory for American students’ right to free speech.

When students are on campus, schools act in loco parentis – they function in place of parents. This gives schools legal authority over minors’ rights while they are at school and formally gives all other authority over minors to their legal guardians. This doctrine and the fact that Levy was off campus when she made the posts was at the centre of the majority opinion’s arguments. Since the Levy ruling reaffirms the school’s on-campus authority over student’s rights, this aspect can be interpreted as an opening to further restrict student speech when on campus.

In questioning, some justices raised concerns about a school’s ability to punish off-campus speech that was threatening to other students. Other justices raised concerns of what schools would do with authority over off-campus speech that was politically controversial.

The justices’ questions indicate that they feel the issue of off-campus speech needs to be further unpacked. All but two of the justices are under the age of 70, and all three of former President Donald Trump’s appointments are under the age of 60. With the composition of the court being unlikely to change any time soon, the right of students to express themselves freely may yet be further eroded.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”You may also want to read” category_id=”581″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Newsnight: David Aaronovitch debates free speech and universities


One of the truly great things about being a student used to be the exposure university life gave you to all sorts of views — absurd and otherwise — and being able to decide for yourself what to make of them. Students were once known for their dedication to free speech and academic freedom, epitomised by the Free Speech Movement at the University of California, Berkeley, 1964-65.

In 2015, students are more renowned for the practice of trying to ban anyone they believe to have dangerous views in order to protect fellow tutees, whether it’s removing the Sun from the shelves or refusing airplay to Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines. We witnessed this tendency most recently with the petition to ban Germaine Greer from speaking at Cardiff University because of her “misogynistic views towards trans women”.

Index on Censorship chairman David Aaronovitch appeared on BBC Newsnight on Thursday to debate free speech at universities with Toke Dahler, a representative of Leeds University student union. Dahler said that “it’s up to students” to decide where the threat lies, and it is the student union’s responsibility to then “make sure that students feel safe and feel welcome”.

For Aaronovitch, student unions should be places of lively debate and discussion, rather than places where students are “hermetically sealed away behind a form of intellectual rampart within which they can feel safe”. The problem with Dahler’s view, said Aaronovitch, is one of definition. What do we mean by safe? Who exactly feels unsafe? And what do they feel unsafe from?

The full interview is available on BBC iPlayer until 28 November. You can watch it here (starts at 27:40).

God at uni: Seeking freedom from stereotype


“Three men walk into a bar.” It’s the set-up for most of the jokes I remember. They’re the kind of jokes that the drunk great-uncle tells at Christmas whilst you titter awkwardly into your fruit cake: often racist, often sexist and always offensive.
Let me tell you a joke.

A girl walks into a bar. She’s tall and blonde, with a privately-funded white smile. My male friend sitting next to me proceeds to ogle her.

“Fit,” he proclaims, “fit as.”

Another male friend laughs. “Don’t even bother going there, mate,” he says, nodding towards the girl. “She’s CU.”

The first friend looks back at the girl and then down at his drink ruefully. “CU,” he says, the two syllables hammer blows in the final nail of the coffin. CU. Two letters, spelling out abrupt endings to chat-up attempts, awkward pauses between strangers during Fresher’s Week; two letters deemed sufficient to define and dismiss a person in a heartbeat. CU: The Christian Union Society. It isn’t a particularly funny punch line.

I’m not a religious person. I think of myself as an agnostic, happily perched on the fence swinging my legs and waving to those either side of me. However, as a chorister in York Minster cathedral from the age of eight to thirteen, I grew up with a healthy respect for religion. Each day I was surrounded by people who had dedicated their lives to God. Although you may question it or disagree with it, it’s hard not to wonder at faith that strong.

Naively, when I arrived at university last September, I believed that other students would also hold a similar view. I imagined students having heated debates- over politics, religion, music, life- before sharing a beer, respecting the each other’s right to an opinion. Instead, university proved a Pandora’s Box of religious stereotypes. Sitting in a friend’s room during Fresher’s, when our conversation turned towards a boy we both knew to be in the CU society, the friend shook her head.

“I don’t understand them,” she said, “They’re all just brainwashed.”

At most universities, there are a number of faith-based societies, ranging from J-Soc (the Jewish Society) and ISoc (the Islamic society) to MethAng (the Methodist and Anglican society). There are certain stigmas and stereotypes attached to all of them, in the exact same way ‘the rugby lad’ has become a typecast.  However, it is the CU which seems to be under the most scrutiny by students.

Right from my first week I was aware that being in CU somehow marked you out. Membership rendered you a lesser student, automatically barring you from sex, alcohol and nights out- the ‘key’ components of the university experience. I’m far from the only student aware of these stereotypes. Robin, a student at Canterbury Christ Church, says “Some people might not think they’re ‘cool’ if they join a certain religious group. They may feel alienated from other students.”Georgie, a student at Warwick, agrees. “There is a stigma, but more so about Christians than any other religion. Stereotypical faith member as far as I can tell tends to be female, and really smiley and keen to talk about their religion.”

American teen-culture has done much to establish and enforce this perception. In films like Easy-A and television shows such as Glee, religious- and specifically Christian- High School clubs and cliques are portrayed as self-righteous, its members ‘Bible-bashers’. The focus is often on student celibacy. One scene in Glee shows a meeting of the ‘Celibacy Club’. The club is portrayed as absurd; at the mention of the word ‘contraception’ its president Quinn shouts “Don’t you dare mention the C-word!” The female members are also shown as teases: “Remember the power-motto girls: ‘It’s all about the teasing and not about the pleasing.’” As shown by my friend in the bar, this latter stereotype has been particularly successful in its journey across the pond.

Examining the various stereotypes surrounding CUs, I became curious as to what its members thought of them. Jessie, a first-year CU member at Exeter, says she finds people’s preconceptions hard to cope with. “Telling people you’re a Christian when you come to uni, before people know you, is terrifying ,” she explains, “people do tend to form an opinion about you that you’re a ‘bible basher’ or a ‘goodie goodie’ type person and I know I struggled, and still do struggle with that!” Another anonymous member told me “I think there is definitely some stigma. People are always shocked to learn that some CU people enjoy drinking and going out, for example.”

Some university CUs are actively trying to combat these assumptions. ‘Text A Toastie’ is a popular scheme aimed at getting CU members and non-members in dialogue; students are invited to text a question about Christianity with the promise that a member of CU will arrive at your door with a free toastie and answer to your question. Some students are less than impressed by the scheme. Robin says “I personally think it’s a shame that for some people to feel comfortable speaking about religious issues there has to be food involved.” However, what it does succeed in proving is that Christians are not a clique from a teen-movie, but a group open to discussion and debate. Today university students are lucky enough to have religious freedom and the facilities to express it.

Now we have another goal: freedom from stereotype.

This article was originally published on April 29, 2014 at indexoncensorship.org