Federal court vindicates high school student-athlete free speech rights

April 8, 2019

In a recent decision, a federal district court upheld the First Amendment rights of a student-athlete dismissed from her high school cheerleading team over her Snapchat postings. The decision marks a triumphant win for student-athlete free speech rights at the high school level.

The decision by Judge A. Richard Caputo of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania is noteworthy for the judge’s careful navigation of the many landmines involved in high school student speech cases, which often derail efforts to vindicate expressive rights, even at the college level. Here, the student plaintiff, currently a high school junior, unsuccessfully tried out for the varsity cheerleading squad, and then posted on Snapchat: “fuck school fuck softball fuck cheer fuck everything,” and “Love how me and [my friend] get told we need a year of jv before we make varsity but that[ ] doesn’t matter to anyone else?” The coaches got wind of the snaps and suspended the student from the cheerleading team for one year for violating rules banning “foul language” and “negative information regarding cheerleading, cheerleaders, or coaches placed on the internet.”

The ruling is an excellent review of high school student speech law and student-athlete rights, shedding light on the many holes in these swiss-cheese doctrines. As explained by the judge, “public school students do not shed their speech rights at the ‘schoolhouse gate,’” unless that speech materially and substantially disrupts the school; contains “lewd, vulgar or profane language”; “can reasonably be regarded as encouraging illegal drug use”; or is “school-sponsored” and is related to “any legitimate pedagogical concerns.”

Getting past all of those carve-outs is only the first step — the court then explained how student-athletes generally have diminished rights when compared to other students. However, the court clarified that less protection does not mean no protection:

By choosing to go out for the team, student athletes . . .  voluntarily subject themselves to a degree of regulation even higher than that imposed on students generally. But players do not completely waive their rights when they join a team, as the First Amendment also reaches the playing field. (Internal quotations and citations omitted.)

Despite these potential pitfalls, the court found that the student’s speech occurred off campus and did not disrupt educational or athletic activities, earning First Amendment protection. Without evidence that the speech was sponsored by the school or impaired its functions, the court found that the coaches could not punish the student for her speech.

The decision illustrates the hurdles faced by many student-athletes seeking to voice their frustration with their school or team. The judge’s thorough analysis of the myriad ways schools can legally stunt student-athlete speech reflects the tightly girdled atmosphere for such expression, one that doesn’t loosen up much at the college level. For every student such as the plaintiff here who is fortunate enough to prevail in court, there are many others whose punishments for speaking out go unaddressed.

Those interested in student-athlete rights should check out the full decision, as well as FIRE’s Statement on College Student-Athletes’ Free Speech Rights, for more information.