This week, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments for Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L.,a case that involves a school cheerleader — Brandi Levy — who was rejected for the varsity team and expressed her frustration on Snapchat, cursing the school and her cheerleading squad.
The district saw her private, harmless post and punished her for voicing her opinion, suspending her from cheerleading for the next year. If the Supreme Court votes in favor of the school district in this case, student voices across the country will be put in jeopardy because teachers and administrators will be able to punish students for off-campus speech regardless of whether it is harmful or harmless.
Brandi Levy isn’t alone. Last year, one of my classmates was punished in a nearly identical situation. A member of my debate team, he placed first at a tournament and posted his trophy on Instagram with the caption: “I don’t even need a coach to win, I did it all on my own!” He felt like he’d worked for the victory alone and the school had tried to take the credit. When our coach saw the post, she booted him off the team.
My classmate had dedicated five years to the debate team, and he lost it in an instant. He didn’t bully or endanger anyone with what he said online. He merely voiced his opinion on social media after winning a tournament. Still, my school punished him.
Students like Brandi and my former debate teammate weren’t calling for social change. But many students who do are also implicated in this case. Furthermore, students who want to speak up about harassment and assault in school could also be put at risk if the Supreme Court rules in favor of the school district.
If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Brandi Levy, students like me will be able to come forward and speak out.
Students who partake in social activism should be able to speak freely without worrying about retaliation from their schools. Consider the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who founded March For Our Lives after the tragic shooting at their school. These students were calling on their lawmakers, school administrators and representatives to create stricter gun laws to keep students safe. One of the students’ main issues was with the officer assigned to the school: During the shooting, he hid and left the students and teachers to defend themselves.
The students organized petitions, walkouts and numerous campaigns that specifically discussed how poorly the situation was handled by their school administration. If the Supreme Court votes with Mahanoy Area School District, school administrators will be able to shut down any future actions like those taken by the Parkland students.
Students should also be able to speak up about harassment and sexual assault. In middle school, like many students, I was constantly catcalled and objectified. One of the boys in my grade was known for grabbing girls inappropriately. I went to the administration about it when he started doing that to me as well. They did nothing. About a month later, I gave up on talking to the teachers and fought back myself. I received an in-school suspension.
When I went home, I told my mom what had happened so that she would hear it from me first. But my school never contacted her. There were no calls, no emails and no papers to sign. I had considered fighting the suspension or going to higher-up administrators, but I was scared of further punishment from the school.
If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Brandi Levy, students like me will feel safe to come forward and speak out.
As a student activist and a member of a student activist organization in Houston, the HISD Student Congress, I assisted in filing an amicus brief to the Supreme Court highlighting these two points. Too often, students aren’t consulted on the decisions that affect us most. We wanted the court to hear our voices about how this decision affects us personally. Students like me, who are passionate about activism and want to speak about harassment in schools, deserve the same legal protections as adults. Our work will be put in danger if the Supreme Court votes in favor of the school district in this case. The Supreme Court should protect our voices.
Heidi Chapin is a junior at the Houston Academy for International Studies in Houston, and a leadership member of the Houston Independent School District Student Congress, which represents the 200,000+ students of HISD.
This story about Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.