Cheering against censorship: How a cheerleader's story is shaping freedom of expression

Cilla Nee
Opinion contributor

Some people keep diaries, others keep private Snapchat stories. Both serve the same purpose. The difference? One is paper, the other is online.

As a social media user, I have both used and seen others use Snapchat as an online diary. We often exchange posts about mental health struggles or parents, we complain about people or experiences. One’s private story is a place where one can show one’s vulnerability, humor and creativity. As a student at an online school, the only way for me to communicate with classmates is online. Social media is our lifeline across both the globe and pandemic. It is where we express ourselves.

Brandi Levy was a student at Mahanoy Area High School when she tried out for the varsity cheer squad. She failed and was stuck on junior varsity cheer. Frustrated with failure, final exams and softball, she posted an expletive heavy Snapchat story: “f--- school f--- softball f--- cheer f--- everything” and a photo of herself with a friend, middle fingers raised. It was a typical teenage response to disappointment, and it was only visible to her Snapchat friends, a list she curated. Someone on her private story screenshotted it and showed it to her mother, a team coach.

Within the week, Brandi was suspended from cheer. The Supreme Court recently published its decision on her case. The court held that public school officials are not at liberty to discipline students for their speech even when it happened off campus, on the weekend and on Snapchat. The only circumstances that allow for officials to discipline students is when they are acting in loco parentis.

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One way the court resolved this case was determining whether her statement was disruptive. The landmark case on student speech, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, established a “substantial disruption” test. It permits schools to interfere with student speech only when it causes substantial disruption to school operation. This case flunks that test. Brandi was at a convenience store, on the weekend, addressing her friends. All of the statements she made were off campus, wearing no identifying markers of the cheer team, and not part of a school function. The school was not acting in loco parentis, it was trying to save face.

Though no disruption was caused by Brandi, had there been any, it would have been caused by her teammate who screenshotted her story. Brandi’s statement itself, while not elegantly worded, was harmless. It was amongst teammates and friends who knew Brandi and what she was like. Showing it to an adult coach produces a different reaction than showing it to her friend. 

Testimony from Brandi’s coaches reveals she was punished for her profanity, but was that really their issue? Or was it that she was “bad mouthing” the team? Perhaps her coaches felt “f--- cheer” does not reflect well on their coaching abilities. While her statement was vulgar, it was enshrouding a message of criticism. Perhaps they suspended her to show that these types of statements cannot be tolerated, but in reality, they censored Brandi. Suspending her was as much about punishing Brandi, as it was about showing her teammates what happens to “bad” kids. It was an intimidation tactic, so people would be less likely to complain about the team in the future. She was not suspended for profanity, but for politics. Maintaining their grip on the team, the coaches suspended Brandy. They also fostered suppression and engaged in censorship.

Cilla Nee

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Brandi’s case has attracted attention across the nation; the United States government itself filed a brief in the case. The results of this case will have major consequences, especially with many students having attended online classes. The line where classrooms end and where their homes begin has become murky. With the Supreme Court ruling in favor of the B.L., students will be able to relax when speaking to their peers online, whether in public, or in private. Fear of repercussions from school officials will not prevent students from expressing themselves at all.

Students already have fewer speech rights than their adult counterparts. Allowing school officials to discipline them outside the bounds of the school does not necessarily keep the youth of America safer. The school’s goal in limiting speech should be to foster a safe environment in which students can grow optimally. But by not allowing students room for adolescent self-expression, they are stunting growth.

Cilla Nee is a rising senior at Northwood School and Stanford Online High School. She is interning this summer at the Institute of Molecular Cardiology and the Diabetes and Obesity Center in the School of Medicine at the University of Louisville.