Cheerleader's Supreme Court victory a win for student activists in Kentucky and everywhere

Arivumani Srivastava
Opinion contributor

As high schoolers prepared for their AP United States Government exam in May, a coalition of student activists from across the nation, including Kentucky, were working alongside lawyers to draft an amicus brief for the Supreme Court. The very basis of their work was hanging in the balance of one of the most important student free speech cases in decades: Mahanoy v. B.L.

Since 1969, Tinker v. Des Moines has set the standard for students’ free speech protections. In the case, the Supreme Court ruled that the Des Moines Independent School District could not punish two students for wearing black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War, as they did not “materially and substantially interfere” with the learning environment. Since this decision, students have enjoyed substantial freedom of speech both on and off campus.

However, technology has severely blurred the lines drawn by Tinker. In Mahanoy v. B.L., Brandi Levy was punished for posting a profane Snapchat message regarding her school cheerleading team, on the grounds that hers was a punishable offense since it dealt with school activities. On June 23, 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 ruling is a major win for protecting student activists nationwide.

In his opinion for the majority, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote, “America’s public schools are the nurseries of democracy.” He elaborated that punishing students for unpopular off-campus speech would fail to teach them the importance of protecting all speech in democracy.

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This notion is especially pertinent to the role student activists play in politics 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 on decision-making councils 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 discussed how she and other activists reacted to the decision. “I think the first reaction was a sigh of relief. To think that student advocacy would be threatened in any way through a Supreme Court case of this magnitude was really astonishing.”

The diminished First Amendment leeway given to schools in the court’s opinion affirms that students deserve most of the same constitutional protections as all citizens. These protections are integral to the work of student activists and will allow groups like the Kentucky Student Voice Team to continue to make contributions to legislation and policy conversations without fear of school retaliation.

Arivumani Srivastava is a rising senior at Gatton Academy and a policy analyst with the Kentucky Student Voice Team.

The opinion of the court was not overarching, however. The court decided to leave “when, where, and how the speaker’s off-campus location” will dictate the punishable speech to future cases, leaving the possibility open for student activists’ freedoms to be cut in the future. Nevertheless, the narrow opinion by the majority maintains the status quo that schools should not have total regulation of on- and off-campus speech, allowing student activism to continue to flourish uninterrupted nationwide.

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The majority’s assertion that student free speech is essential to teaching democracy will undoubtedly benefit our country for years to come. Protecting student speech ensures the next generation of leaders will be raised knowing we can utilize the core principles of our Constitution in an unequivocally American way: to make our voices heard.

Arivumani Srivastava is a rising senior at The Gatton Academy and a policy analyst for the Kentucky Student Voice Team, an independent youth-led organization that supports students as education research, policy, and advocacy partners in the work to make Kentucky schools more equitable, just, and excellent.