A judge ruled that a Pennsylvania school district's decision to kick a cheerleader off the squad for posting "fuck cheer" on Snapchat violated her First Amendment right to free speech.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania sued Mahanoy Area School District on behalf of the student, referred to in court documents as B. L., in September 2017 after the high school sophomore was dismissed from the junior varsity squad for posting "negative information" about cheerleading online.
US District Court Judge A. Richard Caputo on Thursday ruled that the social media post was protected speech and ordered the school district to pay nominal damages of $1 and to remove any record of disciplinary action against B. L.
B. L.'s attorney Molly Tack-Hooper said her client was relieved by the judge's ruling.
"Cheerleading has always been important to her not withstanding that she once chose to blow off some steam and express frustration with the Snapchat post that led to the ruling yesterday and all of this litigation," Tack-Hooper told BuzzFeed News Friday.
As part of her participation in cheer, B. L. was required to agree to a set of "Cheerleading Rules" that among other things warned, "There will be no toleration of any negative information regarding cheerleading, cheerleaders, or coaches placed on the internet," according to court documents.
B.L. made the post in May 2017 after she failed to make varsity during tryouts at the end of her freshman year, according to the ACLU affiliate. The post was a photo of her and a friend holding up their middle fingers with the words "fuck school fuck softball fuck cheer fuck everything" superimposed across the photo.
The school's cheerleading coaches suspended B. L. from the team for a year after another student showed them screenshots of the Snapchat post, arguing that the post was in violation of the team's rules, according to court documents.
The district had argued that schools could punish students for out-of-school speech and that the "Cheerleading Rules" prohibiting athletes from disrespectful behavior and the posting of negative information have an educational purpose and did not violate the First Amendment.
Caputo declined to address the legality of the rules in his decision Thursday.
Jack Dean, an attorney for the school district, said administrators respected and would abide by the judge's decision, but decried the litigation as a waste of taxpayer dollars.
B. L. was allowed back on the team under a preliminary injunction issued by the court soon after the lawsuit was filed. She is now a junior and on the varsity cheerleading squad.
"They had argued that the fact that she was in cheerleading meant that they had greater power to punish her," Tack-Hooper said. "Hopefully, this ruling makes it clear that, no, schools don't get to punish kids for swearing on their own time just because they happen to be athletes."