In 2017, a 14-year old student athlete posted vulgar language to Snapchat. “F**k school f**k softball f**k cheer f**k everything,” Brandi Levy posted to her 250 followers, along with a video where she and her friend extended their middle fingers, all because she failed to make the varsity team.
The snap disappeared in 24 hours but a screenshot was sent to the school’s cheerleading coach. Levy was suspended from the junior-varsity team for the school year, kick-starting a legal battle between the school board and Levy, which wound its way up to America’s highest court, over the right to student expression.
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The U.S. Supreme Court ruled yesterday to protect student speech on social media. In an 8-1 decision, it was decided the Pennsylvania school had overstepped its bounds and violated Levy’s First Amendment right. This ruling upholds a longstanding tradition of protecting controversial speech even on campus – even if it’s vulgar, falls against school rules or is unsportsmanlike, as the school argued – so long as it is not genuinely disruptive.
The case is significant as more and more of our communication takes place online, forcing courts, schools and workplaces to grapple with the ramifications. Speech is no longer localized; it can go viral the world over. It’s no longer ephemeral (even on Snapchat) when it can be easily recorded and shared. So should speech still have the same protections?
The court, thankfully, argued yes. But it’s a worrisome matter of fact that it could have gone the other way, and further, that not every country has such a robust tradition of protecting speech as the U.S. Worse, as some may argue, schools may not be able to regulate student speech (with notable exceptions) but the private platforms where it occurs certainly can.
As CoinDesk columnist and venture capitalist Nic Carter noted in an essay this summer, the distinction between public and private authorities has been eroded. While there may be laws on the books protecting free expression, in practice speech is often curtailed or silenced online. In a separate piece, Carter argued for a “user-owned and operated social internet built on a public key infrastructure,” which he sees as the only way to “resist tyrants both in the public and the private sector.”
In just one recent example, The Block’s Wolfie Zhao wrote today about how anonymous protestors in Hong Kong are preserving the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily using Arweave, after the tabloid was forced shut down amid a national security probe.
The rise of the metaverse, the extension of ownership rights over digital money and the attempt to create “censorship-resistant” technologies all speak to the shrinking divide between on- and offline realities. Crypto’s great aim could be described as trying to make the elastic, frictionless world of the web a little more life-like.
In his brief for the court, Justice Stephen Breyer quoted a well-known aphorism: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” (He noted the quote is often attributed to Voltaire, but was likely coined by Evelyn Beatrice Hall.) It’s good that there are public institutions willing to defend basic civil liberties. What’s also needed is public infrastructure, like blockchains, to defend the same rights.