Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L.: Can a School Regulate a Student’s Off-Campus Speech?

Written by: Katelyn Pearson

Summary of the Case

B.L. was a student at Mahanoy Area High School in Pennsylvania, where she made the junior varsity cheerleading squad for the second year in a row.  Disappointed with being placed on the J.V. team instead of the varsity team, B.L. and her friend, while off-campus, posted a Snapchat with a caption containing explicit language regarding cheerleading and school.  A fellow teammate screenshotted this Snapchat and sent it to the cheerleading coach, who decided it violated school rules.  The cheerleading coach ultimately kicked B.L. off the team, and B.L. and her parents challenged her team dismissal to school and district officials, who upheld the coach’s decision.

Procedural History

B.L. and her parents sued Mahanoy Area School District in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging (1) that her suspension from the team violated the First Amendment; (2) that the school and team rules were overbroad and viewpoint discriminatory; and (3) that those rules were unconstitutionally vague.  The district court granted B.L.’s motion for summary judgment finding that the school had violated her First Amendment rights.  Specifically, the district court stated that B.L.’s off-campus speech was not subject to school regulation established by the Supreme Court’s decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 392 U.S. 503 (1969).  In Tinker, the Supreme Court of the United States created a standard for student speech that allows “public school officials [to] regulate speech that would materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school.” 

The Third Circuit’s Holding

The school district appealed this decision to the Third Circuit, who affirmed the district court but took a different approach, finding that schools could not regulate off-campus speech.  The majority of other circuits have held that student’s off-campus speech can be regulated under certain circumstances outlined in that circuit.  However, the Third Circuit relied primarily on case precedent from J.S. ex rel. Snyder v. Blue Mountain School District., 650 F.3d 915, 936 (3d Cir. 2011), where the concurrence stated that “the First Amendment protects students engaging in off-campus speech to the same extent it protects speech by citizens in the community at large.” 

The district court in Mahanoy Area School District relied on Tinker.  However, on appeal, the Third Circuit majority discussed how Tinker was a narrow decision that merely allows schools to regulate speech that would materially and substantially disrupt the school environment within the school context.  The court stated it would make little sense to apply Tinker when a student lacks the “captive audience” of his peers outside the school-owned, -operated, or -supervised channels.  Thus, Tinker does not apply to off-campus speech.  The Third Circuit believed its holding would provide clarity to students and teachers.

The new standard defined in Mahanoy Area School District deviates from other circuit decisions; it even departs from some state court decisions within the Third Circuit.  For example, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has held that schools can regulate off-campus speech.  At the same time, New Jersey enacted a statute making it mandatory for schools to regulate certain off-campus speech.  Consequently, the schools within these states may be subject to varying standards, depending entirely on where the party files the cause of action.

Again, disappointed with the outcome, Mahanoy Area School District filed a writ of certiorari to the United States Supreme Court to provide a uniform standard regarding off-campus speech and resolve the circuit split that exists now.

Question Presented to the Supreme Court

The United States Supreme Court granted the writ of certiorari on January 8, 2021.  Mahanoy Area School District presented this question to the Supreme Court, “Whether Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969), which holds that public school officials may regulate speech that would materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school, applies to student speech that occurs off campus.”  The United States Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on April 28, 2021.