Outside Tinker’s Reach: An Examination of Mahanoy Area School District v. B. L. and its Implications

Hunt, Michelle | April 1, 2022

In the 1969 landmark case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the Supreme Court reassured students that they do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Ever since then, the exact scope of students’ free speech rights has been unclear, but the high court has used Tinker’s substantial disruption test to clarify its scope in successive legal challenges. In 2017, B. L., a Mahanoy Area School District student, was suspended from her cheerleading team after using vulgar language off-campus that made its way back to her coaches. She challenged the decision in the courts, and when her case reached the Court of Appeals, the Third Circuit declined to use Tinker’s test in its decision, instead ruling that Tinker categorically does not apply to any off-campus speech. The Third Circuit’s argument that courts should use a bright-line rule in applying Tinker to off-campus speech is a compelling one. This Comment evaluates the substance of the Third Circuit’s decision, describes the Supreme Court’s eventual retort, and discusses why the Supreme Court’s ruling fails millions of public school students and their families. While the Supreme Court vindicated B. L., students suffer without clear guidance regarding student free speech rights.