As high school students prepared for their United States government AP exam in May, a coalition of student activists from across the country, including Kentucky, worked alongside lawyers to draft an amicus brief for the Supreme Court. The very basis of their work hung in the balance of one of the most important student free speech cases in decades: Mahanoy v. BL
Since 1969, Tinker v. Des Moines set the standard for protecting the freedom of expression of students. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that the Des Moines Independent School District could not punish two students for wearing black armbands in protest against the Vietnam War because they did not “interfere materially and substantially” with the learning environment. Since that decision, students have enjoyed substantial freedom of expression both on and off campus.
However, technology has severely blurred the lines drawn by Tinker. In Mahanoy v. BL, Brandi Levy was punished for posting a secular post on Snapchat regarding her school cheerleader team on the grounds that hers was a punishable offense because it dealt with school activities. On Wednesday morning, the Supreme Court ruled in an 8-1 decision that this argument was invalid, and Brandi’s speech was protected by the First Amendment. Despite a narrow opinion, the decision is a major victory for the protection of student activists nationwide.
In his view for the majority, Judge Stephen Breyer wrote: âAmerica’s public schools are breeding grounds for democracy. He said punishing students for unpopular speech off campus would not teach them the importance of protecting all speech in a democracy.
This notion is particularly relevant to the role student activists in politics play today. The rise of youth-led organizations like Sunrise Movement and March for Our Lives over the past decade has led to an increased role for students in democratic decision-making. In state politics, the Kentucky Student Voice Team has advocated for and against numerous bills affecting Kentucky schools in the state legislature, including school choice, student representation in decision advice and student access to mental health professionals.
Pragya Upreti is a member of the Kentucky Student Voice Team, one of the youth-led organizations that submitted an amicus brief. The Lexington senior explained how she and other activists reacted to the decision. âI think the first reaction was a sigh of relief. To think that the defense of student interests would be threatened in any way by a Supreme Court case of this magnitude was truly astonishing. “
The First Amendment’s reduced flexibility for schools, in the court’s opinion, asserts that students deserve most of the same constitutional protections as all citizens. These protections are an integral part of the work of student activists and will allow groups like the Kentucky Student Voice Team to continue to contribute to discussions about legislation and policy without fear of retaliation from the school.
The court’s opinion, however, was not preponderant. The court decided to leave “when, where, and how the speaker’s off-campus location” will dictate punishable speech in future cases, leaving room for the freedoms of student activists to be curtailed in the future. Nonetheless, the narrow majority view maintains the status quo that schools should not have full regulation of speech on and off campus, allowing student activism to continue to flourish uninterrupted across the country.
The majority’s assertion that students’ freedom of speech is essential for teaching democracy is no doubt that our country will benefit for years to come. Protecting the Word of Students ensures that the next generation of leaders are raised knowing that we can use the fundamentals of our constitution in an unmistakable American way: make our voices heard.
Arivumani Srivastava is a rising senior at Gatton Academy and a policy analyst for the Kentucky Student Voice Team, an independent youth-led organization that supports students as research, policy and advocacy partners in education in the workplace. to make Kentucky schools more equitable, fair, and excellent.