The previous key is from another era. In 1969, in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the Supreme Court allowed students to wear black armbands to protest the Vietnam War, but said disruptive speech, at least on school grounds, could be punished.
Distinguishing between what students say on and off campus was easier in 1969, before the rise of social media. Nowadays, most courts have allowed public schools to discipline students for social media posts as long as they are related to school activities and threaten to disrupt them.
A divided panel of three judges from the Third Circuit took a different approach, announcing that a hardline rule would appear to limit the ability of public schools to deal with many types of disturbing student speech on social media, including racist threats and cyberbullying.
In a concurring opinion, Judge Thomas L. Ambro wrote that he would have ruled for the student on more limited grounds. It would have been enough, he said, to say that his speech was protected by the First Amendment because it did not disrupt school activities. The majority were wrong, he said, to protect all off-campus speech.
In a brief urging the Supreme Court to hear the school district’s appeal, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association said the line drawn by the Third Circuit was too crude.
“Whether a disturbing or harmful tweet is sent from the school cafeteria or after the student has crossed the street on her way home, it has the same impact,” the brief said. “The formalistic Third Circuit Rule renders schools powerless any time a hate message is sent off campus.”
The student, represented by attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Supreme Court that the First Amendment protected her “colorful expression of frustration, performed in a fleeting Snapchat on her personal social media over the weekend,” off campus, containing no threats. or harassment or mention of her school, and this did not cause or threaten to disrupt her school. “