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The Predator

Mary Beth Tinker, student rights, and the First Amendment

Over the course of American History, multiple battles have been fought on the floor of the Supreme Court in an effort to ensure and preserve the rights our Founding Fathers defended so many years before. However, it was less than a
century ago when students were finally able to have their cases heard in the Supreme Court and defend their own constitutional rights. Most of these notable cases concern the

First Amendment, which protects our right to the freedom of speech, press, religion, petition, and assembly. With famous
cases such as Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District and Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier
under its belt, the Supreme Court now has pending Mahanoy Area School District v. BL, a case that will most definitely
redefine the limits of student speech. Mahanoy Area School District v. BL concerns Brandi Levy and the Mahanoy Area High School in Pennsylvania. Levy, then 14, had just learned that she had failed to make the varsity cheer team. Discouraged and upset, Levy expressed her frustrations in a colorfully worded Snapchat message that was sent to about 250 friends. In it, she vented about her week, verbalizing her discontent with school, softball, cheer, and “everything.” Though Snapchat stories disappear after a period of 24 hours, another student took a screenshot of this message, resulting in Levy’s suspension from the cheer team. The suspension was to last for a year, with the school saying the punishment was crucial to “avoid chaos” and maintain a “team like environment.” Levy, however, disagreed with the decision and sued the school on the grounds that her suspension violated the First Amendment by attempting to regulate her off campus speech and punish her for said speech. She won the case in two lower courts, including the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit.

Mary Beth Tinker, who brought similar suit with her brother John in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community
School District (1969) faced a similar situation. Then 13 and 15, the siblings were suspended after wearing black arm-
bands protesting the Vietnam War at school. They sued the school district and won the case, with the Supreme Court famously saying that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the school-
house gate.”

“What comes next is what really matters.” Tinker says. “They could write a very narrow opinion. A narrow opinion would just say that the school was wrong to punish her for such a minor offense, which would therefore confirm what
the 3rd Circuit Court Appeal said.”

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit ruled in Levy’s favor, but completely disregarded Tinker’s case, which involves student speech that could “substantially disrupt” the learning environment, claiming that it simply did not apply in the first place. Though the court is probably correct with the ruling that Levy shouldn’t have been punished to this extent for a Saturday snap, students who engage in more dangerous off-campus speech should still be disciplined. Since rise of
social media, more and more of the communication between students is happening outside of school grounds, largely over
mainstream platforms such as Snapchat or Instagram. This has led to an increase in cyberbullying, where the harassment
of students via online platforms has resulted in negative affects for the mental health of students, with some taking
tragic measures and taking their own life. In order to “avoid chaos” and maintain this “team like environment” so many
schools strive for, they must have the ability to crack down on these cyberbullying incidents before it’s too late, even if it is
not happening on school grounds. However, Levy’s side of the case is of great importance as well. Her speech simply in-volved her venting and in no way threatened any student or staff member at her school. Now that the case is in the hands of the Supreme Court, it can bring an answer to the key question eloquently stated by the petitioner (whom in this case is the school district): “Whether Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969), which holds that public school officials may regulate speech that would materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school, applies to student speech that occurs off campus.”

“One problem is that the schools will vary widely on how they implement the ruling no matter what it is.” Tinker says. “The reach of schools and the discipline of schools across the country varies widely depending on the school and depending on the district. So much of it is up to interpretation. What is substantial disruption? What does infringe on the rights of others?”

As Mary Beth Tinker surmised, the view schools take on matters such as disruption in school will vary drastically depending on what part of the country you live in. At Charles Evans Elementary in Oklahoma, Jordan Herbert’s 8-year-old
son was pulled out of class by the principal after showing up to school wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt. “It was clearly
in their rights to do that under Tinker.” Tinker stresses. “What you see across the country is great variation on how schools implement these precedents depending—usually, unfortunately—on the class and the race of the students.”

“Free speech and expressions aren’t nearly as present in those schools that have a lot of kids of color—like black kids, Hispanic kids, native American kids—and where there’s a lot of low-income kids. You can forget the free press
in those schools.” She adds. It is true. According to Kent State University, “Schools that are smaller, poorer or have a large
minority population are more likely to have no student media.” While the Supreme Court has long held its silence when it comes to social media in schools, it is finally ready to confront the issue that is grow- ing more pertinent as social media use grows. “This could be another setback for youth voices,” Tinker says. “If the court rules that the school has the power to censor, punish students for their out of school speech it would have a very chilling effect—the students would be scared to speak up about things that matter in their lives.”

“If a student was hosting a Black Lives Matter rally or an anti-abortion rally and was using social media to do it, other students could get upset and report it. If the topic isn’t popular in that school district, maybe the school could claim
that it was disrupting and affecting school somehow.” Tinker says. “I think administrators should find some other way to
deal with disagreements and controversy besides censoring and punishing student speech.”

Mary Beth Tinker brings up a good point. There are now a growing number of schools in the United States that are working towards involving the students more when it comes to mediating their problems. For example, the Bolles Middle School campus Bartram in Jacksonville selects students to form a non-partisan group of students known as the Honor Council. The Honor Council works together with their councilor to determine whether disciplinary action is needed and what the punishment will be whenever a student is written up.

“It’s very helpful and very useful when the students lead the way themselves.” Tinker says. “There’s way too much censorship and punishment and not enough talking between the students and listening to students.” This is especially true when it comes to Levy’s case.

“School sports and extracurricular activities are one of the best things for youth health. They were willing to sacrifice her wellbeing so that they could control how she expressed her feelings outside of school. I think that’s just a disrespect for youth. Youth are a group that’s traditionally discriminated against. All of this is a basically a human’s rights issue of youth being able to have a say over the issues that affect your lives and you’re not always going to say that
in a way some adults like.” Tinker says.

No matter what the ruling is, the decision the Supreme Court makes on Mahanoy Area School District v. BL will affect the First Amendment rights of students all over the nation. However, one thing is for sure: We express ourselves in ways that are effective to us, and we should not be punished for it, especially if it’s taking place outside of school.

“There are other ways to deal with bullying besides weakening the rights of young people.” Tinker says. “Students should be supported and that takes resources—where is the budget?

Where’s the budget for supporting youth, for supporting schools? All of these things take resources, and our society hasn’t been willing to make youth wellbeing a priority.

“Most change does not come through the courts. Most change comes by people standing together, and saying, ‘no, we won’t accept the way things are, and we can do better’ and youth are saying that when it comes to racism, when it comes to the climate, to their school curriculum, to gender issues, animal rights, and so many other issues. It’s so important—one of the ways that youth get together with each other is through social media. I would hate to see the case,
this ruling, have an effect on that.”

After the events of Tinker v. Des Moines, Mary Beth Tinker went on to get master’s degree in both public health
and nursing, as well as working as a pediatric nurse. Today, Tinker conducts speaking tours across American schools, teaching students about their rights. As a youth rights advocate, Tinker works hard to ensure the youth have a say in their lives.

“I discouraged at times about the world, and about the violence and everything—you know how it is—but then, I talk to the youth, and you’re young and you care and you’re really taking action and I know that you’re doing something
that makes life worth living.”

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