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Mahanoy decision bolsters democracy’s roots, future


by John Bowen MJE

While words shared in anger in off-campus speech by an unhappy student might not seem to have lasting democratic value, they do. Expressing them and other views provides foundation for our marketplace of ideas, and reaffirms protection for unpopular and unpleasant ideas.

In Mahanoy School District v. B.L., The U. S. Supreme Court decided 8-1 school officials cannot control, in this case, student expression created off grounds. The court did not set additional standards or tests when schools can restrict off-campus speech, according to a Student Press law Center release.

The case developed from a student’s failure to make the varsitycheerleading squad and subsequent vulgar posts about the squad, the school and more.

America’s public schools are the nurseries of democracy. Our representative democracy only works if we protect the “marketplace of ideas.” This free exchange facilitates an informed public opinion, which, when transmitted to lawmakers, helps produce laws that reflect the People’s will. That protection must include the protection of unpopular ideas, for popular ideas have less need for protection.” (Mahanoy School District v. B.L., emphasis added)

The Court’s decision recognized schools might have special interest in regulating some student speech, but not in this case.

“It might be tempting to dismiss B. L.’s words as unworthy of the robust First Amendment protections discussed herein,” wrote Justice Breyer for the court’s majority. “But sometimes it is necessary to protect the super- fluous in order to preserve the necessary.”

Teaching points from the decision could include:
• Working to help the school’s community understand and support the importance of protecting student speech seen as unpopular or unpleasant.
• Developing educational outreach programming by student media to explain student media responsibility of key legal and ethical principles including student designated forum status, making final decisions of all content and understanding SCOTUS decisions in Mahanoy, Tinker, Hazelwood and others.
• Demonstrating the importance of student journalistic responsibility to as important factors in maintaining and growing our democratic heritage through an empowering marketplace of ideas.

Educating school communities about these principles will show how schools should, and do, carry out their public responsibilities as nurseries of democracy

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