Public school officials in Dearborn, Mo., did not violate the First Amendment rights of a public middle schooler when they suspended her from the volleyball team for posting a Snapchat of herself drinking alcohol off-campus.
A federal district court judge distinguished this situation from that of Brandi Levy, a Pennsylvania high school student who prevailed before the U.S. Supreme Court in Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L.
On Sunday, May 9, 2021, then seventh-grader N.C., who attended school in the North Platte R-1 School District, recorded a video of herself drinking alcohol. She shared the video on Snapchat. Later that evening, her mother, Breanna Cheadle, discovered N.C. on her bedroom floor afflicted with what medical personnel later diagnosed as acute alcohol poisoning. Cheadle wrote two messages on N.C.’s account, chastising some of N.C.’s friends and acquaintances who thought the video was amusing.
N.C. returned to school the next Tuesday, but school officials learned of the video and suspended N.C. from participating on the volleyball team for 45 days.
Cheadle sued on behalf of N.C., contending that school officials had violated the First Amendment. Cheadle argued that her daughter’s Snapchat video was analogous to Brandi Levy’s Snapchat photos, which were ruled protected speech by the Supreme Court in Mahanoy. Levy had posted photos expressing her frustration at not making the varsity cheerleading squad.
However, on Aug. 16, U.S. District Judge Stephen R. Bough ruled in favor of school officials in Cheadle v. North Platte R-1 School District, finding that Levy’s Snapchat photos and N.C.’s alcohol video were not analogous.
“When a minor consumes alcohol, she is engaging in illegal conduct,” Bough wrote. “North Platte’s statements indicate it intended to punish N.C.’s conduct, not her or Cheadle’s speech.”
The judge added that “N.C.’s intended message lacks the same level of First Amendment value as B.L.’s criticism in Mahanoy because N.C. was engaged in illegal conduct, not pure speech, and was not engaged in criticism of her community, which is normally afforded strong protection.”
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David L. Hudson Jr. is a professor at Belmont University College of Law who writes and speaks regularly on First Amendment issues. He is the author of Let the Students Speak: A History of the Fight for Free Expression in American Schools (Beacon Press, 2011), and of First Amendment: Freedom of Speech(2012). Hudson is also the author of a 12-part lecture series, Freedom of Speech: Understanding the First Amendment (2018), and a 24-part lecture series, The American Constitution 101 (2019).