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What does the Supreme Court’s Snapchat decision mean for free speech online

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A lot of explicit Snapchat history it became the basis for a Supreme Court ruling on freedom of expression. The Supreme Court ruled that a Pennsylvania public school violated the First Amendment rights of one of its students after being suspended from the cheerleading team because of a Snapchat post in which it said “f- school f- softball f- cheer f- everything. “

At first glance, the case sounds like the type of disciplinary action that probably happens in most schools: A student, identified in court documents as “BL,” did not make the team of varsity cheerleaders and took to Snapchat to “blow” like Justice Brett Kavanaugh described. The post has finally made its way past her Snapchat friends, ultimately resulting in her being suspended from the cheerleading team.

But in its decision, the Supreme Court made it clear that even out-of-color speech is protected by the First Amendment. “It may be tempting to dismiss BL’s words as unworthy of the robust protections of the First Amendment discussed here. But sometimes it is necessary to protect the superfluous in order to preserve what is necessary,” Judge Stephen Breyer wrote in his opinion. majority.

The case is also unique because it is one of the first times the nation’s highest court has influenced students ’discourse on the Internet, says Jeffrey Rosen, CEO of the National Constitution Center. “One of the reasons this case is so important is because it’s the first opportunity for the court to contend with the question of where to draw the line between on-campus and off-campus discourse in an online world,” Rosen said. to Engadget before sentencing.

In its decision, the Supreme Court left open questions about how exactly social media influences how these lines should be drawn. The sentence made more of the fact that the speech was made off-campus and not during a school function, rather than how the comments were made. Although in a separate and concurring opinion, Judge Samuel Alito noted that a school would have authority over what students say while participating in online learning or other “online school activities”.

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Notably, in his sole dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas raised the role that social media could play in these decisions. “The majority fail to consider whether schools will often have more authority, not less, to discipline students who transmit the word through social media,” he wrote. “Because off-campus speech made through social media can be received on campus (and can spread quickly to countless people), it often has a greater tendency to damage the school environment than an off-campus conversation. campus in person “.

Even so, the decision could also influence the way future cases are handled. “Students will continue to be disciplined for things they post online and lower courts will, once again, disagree, and at some point, the Supreme Court will be asked to reinstate them,” Rosen says.

The BL case is not even the only high-profile debate on freedom of expression and social media. But it has the distinction of being one of the few cases where the First Amendment applies to social media. “Many online speeches are not covered by the First Amendment,” Rosen said. “Private companies themselves are not required to comply with the First Amendment.” This case was an exception because it involved a public school, which therefore acted “like an arm of the State,” as Justice Alito wrote.

But most of us can’t say that what we say on social media is protected by the First Amendment, despite what some politicians say. As private companies, Facebook and YouTube and Snapchat and Twitter are free to set their own rules around content moderation. Big questions about, say, that a president whether or not it can be said on social media – except regulation by Congress – can be left to the platforms themselves or groups created by industry as well. the Supervisory Board.

“So much of the action when it comes to freedom of expression will be taken out of the Supreme Court,” Rosen said. “And Mark Zuckerberg and the leaders of the platforms have more power over freedom of expression in certain ways than any king or president or even the justice of the Supreme Court.”

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