May 20, 2021
How Supreme Court Decision to Stifle Student Voices Could Impact Activism for Generations
By Arivumani Srivastava and Norah Laughter
For the past half-century, students’ free speech off-campus has been protected by the Supreme Court’s decision in Tinker v. Des Moines, in which a group of high school students fought their suspension for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. As a result, students have had some liberty to express their opinions off-campus without the threat of punishment inside the classroom.
However, these limited protections are under threat. On April 28th, the Supreme Court heard one of the biggest student free speech cases since Tinker in 1969: Mahanoy v. B.L. B.L., who was later identified as Brandi Levy, shared a profane Snapchat message about her school cheerleading team while off-campus, resulting in suspension from the team. The case’s core question is whether or not schools can discipline students for off-campus speech.
The rarity of student free speech cases means the decision will define students’ rights for generations to come, as was the case with Tinker. A ruling allowing schools to regulate speech outside of school would be a devastating blow to students’ ability to freely express themselves, especially regarding student activists’ efforts off-campus.
With the rise of social media as a main mode of communication among teenagers, conversations about school have naturally made their way online. Thus, Brandi is not unique in using the internet to criticize a school decision. This criticism can be vulgar or accusatory, but in most instances, it is not harmful — in fact, it can often lead to productive debate about school policy. The liberty that students enjoy to speak about their school is the same liberty that allows government criticism; stifling speech directly violates the core tenets of our democracy. The principle at risk is what makes this case so vital. A ruling in favor of Brandi following the precedent set by Tinker is imperative to secure the fundamental right to speech for all students.
A ruling in favor of Mahanoy, however, would pose a particularly large threat to the work of student activists. The protections provided by Tinker have fostered the rise of high school student activists across our country, who are at the frontlines of nationwide movements such as March for Our Lives. It has also allowed our organization, the Kentucky Student Voice Team, to flourish in statewide educational activism without fear of school retaliation over dissension.
The protections Tinker provides have been vital for student activists across the country. Just before the oral arguments for the case, students led a Mahanoy teach-in involving Mary Beth Tinker and several nationwide organizations. At the event, Gabriella Staykova, an incoming freshman at the University of Louisville, described her experience presenting a survey regarding the introduction of metal detectors in schools: “... My principal didn’t like our findings ... She told us the information was wrong and biased, despite supporting the survey before and during dissemination.” She continued, “Though we weren’t formally disciplined, I’m terrified of what could have been if my administration could punish students for out-of-school speech.”
A decision reducing the protections under Tinker would put student activists at serious risk. Placing outside speech within a school’s jurisdiction opens the door to students being punished for speech that contradicts the views of school staff. This would lead to a school environment where students can no longer freely call for change, and Gabriella’s fears would come to fruition. At the slightest hint of dispute, school administrators could shut down activists with punitive measures.
Student voice is critical to democratic decision making. Stifling our voices with a decision for Mahanoy would prevent students from speaking out about issues at the forefront of society. We are the generation fighting for our future, and we deserve to be able to use our voice to achieve the world we want. A decision limiting student speech would be antithetical to the democratic principles upon which our country was founded, preventing the civic growth of the next generation.