NCTE Responds to US Supreme Court’s Mahanoy v. B. L. Ruling
Today, the US Supreme Court sided 8-1 in favor of a student, and aligned with the amicus brief NCTE filed earlier this year. In its decision, the Supreme Court resoundingly ruled to protect student voice and freedom of speech, and the case itself illustrates the very essence of literacy in the twenty-first century. NCTE’s amicus brief articulated the vital importance of promoting student free speech while also acknowledging that there may be times when even off-campus student speech may be subject to regulation (e.g., severe bullying, harassment, and threats); this perspective was thoroughly represented in the court’s decision.
We all recognize that communication takes place across platforms, is faster than ever, and advances as students gain experience and knowledge. While educators need support in creating a safe and respectful culture in our schools, policies should prioritize intentional lessons and modeling of civil discourse in our classrooms over harsh, punitive reactions.
We can likely all agree that sharing emotively or lashing out about one’s frustration at not making the varsity cheerleading squad on a social media platform is not a matter of substantial disruption of the work or discipline of a school. Further, schools should be loath to expand their authority to include communication expressed in nonschool hours and off campus.
Communication has changed radically since 1969 (the year of the Tinker decision), when the existence of a platform like Snapchat would have been inconceivable. This case has illustrated literacy in the digital age, as well as the outdated nature of Tinker-era case law. Students across the United States can now speak and share their opinions not only verbally, as in the case of the Tinker siblings, but also digitally, with constituencies far beyond the school walls at any time. Expression of students’ experiences and feelings—when they do not interfere with teaching conditions and safety, and when they are free of bullying or harassment—should be understood and, often, celebrated as part of intellectual growth.
We have much to learn from students. In addition to this case, NCTE recognizes the many, many students who are challenging their school systems to do better. Listening to students focuses our attention on serving students equitably and, in the case of English language arts, with literature, writing, and communication that reflects their cultures and offers opportunities to learn about others. Limiting the protections of student free speech extinguishes opportunities for adults and systems alike to listen in order to learn and improve.
This case also points to the issues that lead to systemic tragedies like the school-to-prison pipeline. Punishment at all, in this case, and often outsized punishment, leads to a vortex of conditions that lead to a path everyone wants to avoid—including the students who are intimately involved.
NCTE Executive Director Emily Kirkpatrick shared her reaction to the ruling: “NCTE is committed to protecting student voice and expression as we also own the very nature of what literacy is in the digital age. These issues have been at the foreground of the Mahanoy v. B. L. case. We thank our partners at O’Melveny & Myers, the ACLU, the ACLU of Pennsylvania, and others in making it possible for NCTE to support the student in the United States Supreme Court on these issues that are vital to our democracy and the very essence of literacy’s surpassing importance in a digital age.”
Resources and Further Reading
Restorative Justice in the English Language Arts Classroom by Maisha T. Winn, Hannah Graham, and Rita Renjitham Alfred