In free speech ruling on teen's 'F-word' rant, are we ignoring another aspect of that outburst?

By Gary Abernathy

Free speech great, but teen’s rant raises other issues, right?

The U.S. Supreme Court has sided with a former cheerleader “who excoriated her school in a profanity-laced post on social media, holding that the punishment of her off-campus speech violated the First Amendment,” USA Today reports.

The newspaper recounts the event that led to the court case:

When Brandi Levy, who was 14 at the time, failed to make the varsity cheer team in 2017, she and one of her friends posted a vulgar message on Snapchat, exhorting her followers to "F–––– school f–––– softball f–––– cheer f–––– everything." The message made it back to her coaches, who cut her from the junior varsity squad. After appealing to school authorities, her parents sued the school district in federal court.

Almost all the coverage I’ve seen on this issue has focused on whether the teenager had a First Amendment right to complain about not making the varsity cheerleading team, and the court may well be correct in its ultimate decision on free speech grounds. I don’t think so. I think that when a student posts a profanity-laced tirade against his or her school because of not making the cut for a team or an activity, the school should be able to remove that student from another extracurricular activity. That’s not violating her free speech rights. She can say what she wants. No one is muzzling her. But she might face consequences from her school for saying it.

The school is basically dealing with a behavioral issue, and behavioral issues don’t have to occur on campus for the school to have a legitimate reason to respond. Do we need to outline all the possible off-campus behavioral issues that most people would agree justify a disciplinary or punitive response from the school the person in question attends?

The court (except for the brilliant Clarence Thomas) disagrees. Either way, that’s not the point here. No one has really focused on what seems to me to be a core issue — a 14-year-old girl (or boy) going on Snapchat and publicly (originally just to her Snapchat friends, which is bad enough, but the school ended up seeing it, and eventually the whole world) using the f-word over and over.

Were her parents embarrassed or outraged that their 14-year-old daughter did this? They’re the ones who filed the case on behalf of their child. I found a story from April originally from the Pottsville (PA) Republican Herald reporting this:

When Larry Levy learned about his daughter’s profane Snapchat post, which led to a free speech battle that has landed in the U.S. Supreme Court, his first concern wasn’t the language used by his 14-year-old, but instead what was behind the outburst. “I was more concerned about what led to the Snapchat. I was more concerned about the emotional situation that Brandi was having at the time more so than over the use of a profane word,” he said.

Interesting. Was there any parenting-style consequence for their daughter for her profane outburst? The same story says, “Larry Levy didn’t discuss any specific discipline for Brandi at home, but noted he didn’t learn about what she had done until he was notified about the school carrying out its discipline.” What’s one thing got to do with the other? When he finally learned about it, was he embarrassed or outraged over what his daughter had done? Was she grounded? Did she lose any privileges?

Most stories about this case have painted the teenager as a victim, or even a heroic free-speech crusader. It helps explain why so much of our society seems unmoored from the concept of actions and consequences.

The Republican Herald story concludes:

Larry Levy, beyond the court case, hopes to effect change from this long legal battle by running for school board in the current election. “I want to be the voice that students have so they are treated equally and fairly and that their civil rights are never violated, and to come up with policy and procedure for selecting students for extracurricular activities so that every student has a fair chance and is selected based on skill and merit,” he said in a statement issued Friday. “This case sparked that fuse.” As for his daughter, does she regret what was a seemingly harmless social media post leading to a case before the Supreme Court nearly four years later? “Now that I’m older and I look back at it, I don’t regret doing it because now I’m here fighting for my rights,” she said. “I feel everyone should be able to do what I did, so I don’t regret it one bit.”

Not. One. Bit. “I feel everyone should be able to do what I did.” Everyone? A 12-year-old? A 10-year-old? An 8-year-old? All with no disciplinary consequences at school? Are there any lines at all?

It’s telling that the news story described the rant as a “seemingly harmless social media post.” It’s an indication of where many in society have landed today. It was seemingly harmless. Practically innocuous. Barely worth mentioning. Apparently, every 14-year-old should be encouraged to go on social media and complain about a school decision by saying “f—-” this and “f—-” that over and over again. That would make the world a better place. It probably builds character. Got it.

What we’re telling our children by how this has been reported and, now, adjudicated is, “When you think something has happened to you that’s not fair, go on social media and say, ‘f’ this and ‘f’ that. Throw a temper tantrum laced with profanity. You’ll be celebrated for it.” Is that really the message we want to send? For many, the answer is clearly “yes.”

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