Can students be punished for free speech? Local expert, students weigh in

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WICHITA FALLS (KFDX/KJTL) — Attorneys in a pivotal case that could decide the free speech rights of students presented oral arguments at the Supreme Court this morning.

A third circuit decision which ruled that school administrators may not regulate off-campus speech by students is being challenged in the nation’s highest court after a Pennsylvania high school student posted inflammatory, non-specific comments about school and school-related activities on Snapchat.

Words that could ultimately shape the contours of protected speech.

When it comes to what constitutes protected speech, the jury is out.

“This is going to have a long term impact. This is not a decision that’s going to be here today, gone tomorrow. This will be a decision we are citing for years,” MSU Associate Professor of Mass Communications Bradly Wilson said.

In what may be the most consequential case regarding student free expression in more than a decade, Wilson says context is key.

“She made her comments, some derogatory comments about the cheer team, that she didn’t make and about the coach. Away from school. Not wearing a school uniform and no way identifying with the school. And school administrators still saw fit to punish her because of what she said on Snapchat,” Wilson said.

These comments made by a Pennsylvania high school student who didn’t make the squad are now under scrutiny by the nation’s highest court.

“Certainly school administrators have a lot more things to consider when it comes to free speech issues. But also where does the role of the administration stop when it comes to governing the students,” Wilson said.

Among students, opinions vary.

“I do think that the girl is protected under the first amendment, especially since it wasn’t on school property,” Thalia Doe said.

Junior mass communications major Thalia Doe believes if the speech isn’t illegal, it shouldn’t be regulated by administrators.

Fellow colleague and senior mass communication major Yerasly Duran differs.

“Whatever happened with her cheerleading team or her teacher. She should have kept it to herself. And not post it publicly. Because if she did post something publicly, I feel like the cheerleading coach team can do something. Can take some actions,” Duran said.

All eyes on the supreme court with a decision expected in late June.

Legal experts aren’t sure how the court will rule on this one.

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