An 8-1 free-speech ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court today rejected arguments N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein offered in a friend-of-the-court brief.
Justices ruled in favor of Brandi Levy, who was a 14-year-old high school freshman in Pennsylvania when she ran afoul of local school officials. Levy took to Snapchat to share disappointment over not making her school’s varsity cheerleading team. Her rant on the topic included a string of curse words and a raised middle finger.
Levy was not in school when she made her social media post, but school officials still suspended her from cheerleading activities for a year. Justice Stephen Breyer wrote the majority opinion finding that the suspension violated Levy’s First Amendment rights.
“In typical Josh Stein fashion, the official taxpayer-funded press release from the Attorney General’s Office declared in big bold type: ‘Attorney General Josh Stein Fights to Protect Students from Bullying,'” Woodhouse wrote on March 5.
“The release announces Stein filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to ‘preserve schools’ ability to address cyberbullying and other forms of off-campus bullying that substantially affect students’ education,'” he added.
“In fact, despite Stein’s hyperbolic claims, according to two highly respected constitutional experts, the case to be argued in front of the high court has nothing to do with bullying at all,” Woodhouse continued. “It has to do with the government’s nearly unfettered ability to regulate and punish students [for] disfavored speech off-campus and away from school activities, specifically dealing with speech that’s not threatening or harassing. There is nothing about the case at hand that has anything to do with bullying.”
Jon Guze, senior fellow in legal studies at the John Locke Foundation, offered Woodhouse an assessment of arguments advanced by Stein and like-minded government officials. “This is just another distressing instance of the left’s abandoning its traditional support for free expression and using bogus claims to suppress speech it doesn’t like,” Guze said.
Charlotte attorney Jonathan Vogel specializes in education law and represents public school students in cases dealing with free speech, social media, and student discipline.
“I can tell you firsthand that students are unfairly and illegally punished by schools for expressing themselves outside the school context,” Vogel told Woodhouse.
“With the proliferation of social media in society, which plays an outsized role in the lives of adolescents, a message or a picture can circulate around a school’s student population in a matter of minutes, if not seconds,” added Vogel. “A student may share an unpopular political view, or the student may speak a crude word, engage in a stupid antic, or otherwise act with age-appropriate immaturity.
“And then comes the overreaction from certain teachers and school administrators. With irrational fears that every student’s act of immaturity outside the school context risks turning the school into the next school-shooting site, the powers-that-be transfer the student to an alternative school, or they suspend or expel the student from school — all in violation of the student’s First Amendment right to free expression.”
Woodhouse’s March 15 column focused on another occasion when Stein took “the side of broad government powers to police speech.” In the earlier case, Stein also was “on the wrong side of the U.S. Constitution when it comes to speech,” Woodhouse wrote.
In 2016, the N.C. Supreme Court struck down a state law banning cyberbullying. The unanimous court ruled that the law unconstitutionally restricted free speech. It “was not narrowly tailored to the state’s asserted interest in protecting children from the harms of online bullying.”
Stein had voted in favor of the cyberbullying law as a state senator in 2009.