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SCOTUS will decide whether social media content is protected

14-year-old Pennsylvania high school student who took to Snapchat after failing to secure a spot on the college cheerleader team is at the center of a case currently before the State Supreme Court -Unis who will test the limits of the capacity of schools to make police speeches on social networks.

In 2017, Brandi Levy, now a student, shared an image with her 250 Snap friends. It was a photo of her and her friend pointing middle fingers at the camera with the caption “F *** school, F *** softball, F *** thumbs up, F *** everything.”


Another junior varsity teammate saw the post, took a screenshot of it and shared it with a coach. The school said the posts disrupted cheerleader morale and suspended Levy from the team for the rest of the year to “avoid chaos” and maintain a “team environment.”

In the balance lies the question of Levy’s speech and whether the speech of millions of public school students online is protected. The court is expected to rule later this month. It’s a case that could transform the way school districts monitor student speech online, including on Santa Monica-based apps from Snap Inc.

Social media has become embedded in the fabric of teenage lives. The once flippant comments are now live and can be shared.

The problem is particularly tricky for school officials trying to balance the use of social media as an early warning system for potential violence, bullying, or even self-harm.

Photo by Souvik Banerjee on Unsplash

The last major ruling on student speech dates back to 1969, when the court ruled that students have the right to free speech in school, unless authorities find out it would cause “substantial disruption.” .

Rachel Levinson-Waldman, deputy director of the Brennan Center’s Freedom and National Security program at the Brennan Center for Justice, said based on the judges’ comments during oral argument, she expects the court to sidestep some of the larger issues. on freedom of expression.

Instead, she thinks it’s likely the judges will make a restrictive ruling. For example, since the case involves a student-athlete, the ruling could apply only to students who voluntarily participate in an extracurricular activity if that speech is about the activity.

Still, she said students’ statements on social media when they are off campus should be protected by the First Amendment. The nonprofit has filed an amicus case supporting Levy with Equality California, the Anti-Defamation League and others, joining more than 100 other organizations to support the teenager. Levy is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union.

“This is going to have an impact on the discourse of students in the future,” said Levinson-Waldman.

The case highlights some of the most difficult questions facing administrators, parents and students in the online world.

If the court allows speech monitoring off campus, it could open the door for districts to use more social media monitoring software like Geo Listening, DigitalStakeout, and Social Sentinel.

Companies have tried to bridge the gap, marketing social media monitoring services as tools that can prevent self-harm and bullying, and in some cases, mass violence.

Research by the Brennan Center from a government purchase order database found that 63 school districts across the country purchased social media monitoring software in 2018, up from six in 2013. Levinson-Waldman noted that the data does not capture all districts that can use this software.

The Center has found that the technology is “largely unproven” and raises questions about privacy, freedom of expression and other civil and human rights concerns. Also problematic, some words that can be flagged by the software can have different meanings in different cultures or contexts. This is especially a problem for students of color, religious minorities, and students with disabilities who are disciplined at disproportionately higher rates than their peers.

In the second largest school district in the country, where students posted shooting threats or other threatening warnings Online – Los Angeles Unified School District officials have said they are tackling cyber threats head-on and not using software to monitor their half-million students on social media.

“While we can exercise our authority over extracurricular behaviors that have a direct and negative impact on school, such as a threat, we are educators by trade and education is our best intervention,” a spokesperson said. of LAUSD in an emailed statement.

The Glendale Unified School District was at center of the question in 2013 after signing a contract with California-based Geo Listening to monitor students’ public messages, sending daily reports to district officials when students mentioned using drugs or injuring themselves or others people. The program was sparked by the suicides of two students the previous year after being bullied online.

“We think it’s working very well,” Glendale Unified Superintendent Dick Sheehan told the LA Times. “It’s designed around student safety and making sure kids are protected.”

The neighborhood renewed the contract in 2015. A district spokesperson said the district had not used the software for “several years,” but could not say why the contract was terminated.

One of the issues in Levy’s case is that she was not on school property when she posted the Snapchat. On the contrary, she posted it on a Saturday in a convenience store. The court must therefore decide whether schools can punish students for speech that occurs online and off campus and that can cause disruption inside schools.

The school district attorney argued that the Internet’s “ubiquity” and its potential for mass dissemination and permanence make the location of students “irrelevant”, while ACLU attorneys representing Levy have argued argue that this would significantly broaden the disciplinary scope of schools.

During oral argument some of the judges seemed to indicate that the punishment did not match the crime in this case and wondered what type of speech would be considered disruptive – every swear word?

Judge Clarence Thomas acknowledged the difficulty of determining where the speech took place and whether it took place under the supervision of the school.

“Are we not at a point where if it’s on social media, where you posted it on social media doesn’t really matter?” Thomas said.

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