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Pro Bono Team Receives Positive Supreme Court Ruling on Student Free Speech

Practices: Appellate & Supreme Court, Securities & Futures Enforcement Tags: Pro Bono

On June 23, 2021, the Supreme Court held in Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. that a school district’s decision to suspend a cheerleader for her off-campus social media post violated the First Amendment.  While the Court importantly acknowledged that schools may regulate certain off-campus speech when there is a strong interest for doing so, no such strong interest existed here. 

On March 31, 2021, a Ropes & Gray team working on a pro bono basis filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court on behalf of the National Women’s Law Center, Lambda Legal, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and 30 additional amici curiae.  The Court’s ruling reflected arguments made in the amicus brief.  First, the Court recognized that schools have some authority over off-campus speech and acknowledged that bullying, harassing, and threatening speech may implicate schools’ regulatory interests.  Second, the decision clarified that schools have very limited power to punish students for political speech that occurs off campus, which helps protects speech advocating for historically marginalized groups, such as racial justice or LGBTQ equality. 

Ropes & Gray Appellate and Supreme Court chair Doug Hallward-Driemeier said “the Supreme Court has correctly acknowledged that off-campus student speech that is bullying, harassing, or threatening may undermine students’ rights to be safe and to access equal educational opportunities, while still protecting other forms of important off-campus student speech.  This is a very positive outcome, particularly for students in historically marginalized groups, including girls and women, LGBTQ students, students of color, and students with disabilities.” 

In addition to Doug, health care partner Stephanie Webster, and litigation & enforcement associates Erin Macgowan, Andrew Hosea, Sam Pokross, and Carrie Sandstrom worked on the brief. The firm learned of this opportunity to partner with the National Women’s Law Center through Stephanie’s work with the organization’s Leadership Advisory Committee.

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