NOEL KING, HOST:
The Supreme Court sided with students today. The justices ruled that a cheerleader's online F-bombs hurled at her school and her team are protected speech under the First Amendment. In an 8-to-1 vote, the court said that school administrators do have the power to punish students' speech online or off campus if it disrupts the classroom, but the justices concluded that a few swear words posted online from off campus, as in this case, did not meet the definition of disruptive. With me now, NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Hi, Nina.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Hi, Noel.
KING: Why did this case go all the way to the Supreme Court?
TOTENBERG: (Laughter) Well, this was a case brought by Brandi Levy, who at the time was a 14-year-old student in Mahanoy, Pa. She failed to win a promotion from the JV cheerleading squad to the varsity, and frustrated and upset, she launched a bunch of those F-bombs on Snapchat to some 200 of her friends, and they were all about school and life in general. When word of her message got out, she was suspended from the cheerleading squad, and she and her parents went to court, contending that she had a First Amendment right to express herself outside of school. A federal appeals court agreed with her, declaring that schools have no right to punish a student for speech outside of the school campus, ever.
Well, today, the Supreme Court drew a much narrower line. In an opinion by Justice Stephen Breyer, the court said there are times when schools can punish students for off-campus speech, like targeted bullying and harassment, but not speech like this, that, in essence, is of - the essence of a person's First Amendment free expression.
KING: What are some of the implications of today's ruling?
TOTENBERG: This was pretty down-the-middle kind of an opinion, very workmanlike opinion by Justice Breyer, very typical. He noted that if a school can punish off-campus speech as easily as this, then all of a student's speech is subject to punishment 24 hours a day, when she's at school and when she's not at school. And writing for the majority, he said while public schools do have a special interest in regulating some off-campus student speech, the special interests offered by the school here are not sufficient to overcome Brandi Levy's interest in free expression.
KING: OK. It was an 8-to-1 ruling. We have seen a bunch of lopsided opinions for this court. Is this another one of those?
TOTENBERG: Yes and no. Technically, it's an 8-to-1 opinion, but Justice Alito, writing for himself and Justice Gorsuch, wrote a much longer concurring opinion than the majority opinion. Seven - even seven more - sorry, I misspoke there. It was seven more pages than the majority opinion. And he went off on a tangent of his own. And Justice Thomas, writing for himself, said once again that he doesn't think the First Amendment protects students' speech at all. So this is really more of a 6-3 decision. And like a lot of the opinions so far this year, three of the conservatives joined with the court's three liberals in a somewhat limited, sort of middling decision.
KING: OK. And then there were a couple of other important decisions today. In the time we have left, can you tell us about a few?
TOTENBERG: In a very important case, Justice Alito, who's written numerous opinions dramatically eroding the power of labor unions, did it again today by a straight 6-to-3 liberal-conservative split. He wrote the conservative court's opinion striking down a California law that allowed labor union organizers to meet with farmworkers on their employers' property during lunch or other off hours before or after work, a set number of days a year. The court said that was an unconstitutional taking of the growers' property. And while I haven't read everything, it could throw in doubt a similar law that's a federal law that's been in place for decades and decades - I would think more than a half century - that gives similar rights to labor organizers around the country but under federal law.
And in another decision, the court set out limits for how far police can go without a warrant in pursuing onto a person's property someone who was observed committing a misdemeanor. In this case, it was a guy who was playing loud music while he was (laughter) driving down the highway late at night and was pursued by a policeman up into his own garage. The court said there are no hard-and-fast rules about this kind of thing but that, generally, misdemeanors don't qualify you to go running on to somebody's property if they're not serious.
KING: NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Thanks, Nina.
TOTENBERG: Thank you, Noel.
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