By Kaylee Lindenmuth
MAHANOY CITY - The Mahanoy Area School District is appealing a ruling which said it violated a student's free speech rights for removing her from the cheerleading squad for a Snapchat post.
The notice of appeal was filed Friday by the district in the case of B.L. v. Mahanoy Area School District. B.L, a Mahanoy Area High School student referred to only by initials since she is a minor, had posted to Snapchat expressing frustration with school and cheerleading in her sophomore year, and was subsequently punished "under cheerleading team rules that prohibit 'disrespect' and prohibit posting any 'negative information' about cheerleading online." The "snap" was profanity-laced, according to court documents.
She had been placed on junior varsity for the second consecutive year, and "to add insult to injury, an incoming freshman made the varsity squad," court filings read.
The post, the ACLU says, was posted on a weekend while the student was not at a school activity. The post was discovered by the daughter of a cheerleading coach, according to court filings.
The student was reinstated to the cheerleading squad in September 2017 after winning a temporary restraining order, and continues to participate to this day.
In the original ruling last month, federal district court Judge A. Richard Caputo explained that the First Amendment does not allow schools to punish students for their out-of-school speech just because that speech is inconsistent with what the school is teaching or because other students complain about it. He also said that the speech in the "snap" was protected by the first amendment.
Molly Tack-Hooper, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Pennsylvania, and co-counsel for B.L., said in a statement Friday, "The law is crystal clear here. School districts have no power to punish students for swearing outside of school. B.L., her parents, and the ACLU made many attempts to resolve this case without unnecessary litigation. The fact that this case has consumed as many attorney hours as it has is entirely the result of the school district’s decisions.”
The Mahanoy Area School District, in a March 25 statement after the ruling, disagreed.
"Inappropriate student conduct on and off school grounds when an athlete is addressed in all extra-curricular rules. Violations of any of these rules could result in suspension or removal from the extra-curricular activity," the district wrote. "Inappropriate conduct could range from disrespect toward the coaches, disrespect toward teammates, disrespect toward the opposing team, disrespect toward officials, disrespect toward school employees, and even disrespect toward the school. Disrespect could include: profanity, aggressive behavior, non-verbal unacceptable behavior, threatening someone physically or verbally, the use of social media to threaten someone, talking back to a coach, cutting practice, discrediting the program after some event to the disdain of the student, cutting practice, fighting, gossip, and in the 21st century the use of social media as a medium of disrespect usually tied to the lack of self-control."
Reggie Shuford, ACLU of Pennsylvania executive director, condemned the use of taxpayer dollars to fight the case.
“It is a shame that the school district has decided to waste more taxpayer dollars fighting a battle that’s already been resolved—rightly—in favor of students’ free speech," said Shuford.
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