The Supreme Court announced in January 2021 that it would hear two cases that could have a major impact on free speech, freedom of belief, and freedom of association.
The first case involves California’s attempt to force conservative groups to hand over donor lists. Another involves a school’s erroneous belief that it could penalize a student for comments made off-campus, on her social media account. The decisions in these two cases are certain to have an outsize impact on First Amendment rights throughout the nation.
The consolidated case of Thomas More Law Center v. Becerra and Americans for Prosperity v. Becerra started in the Golden State in 2015 when then-California AG Kamala Harris ordered the above-mentioned organizations to turn their donor lists over to the state government. The organizations refused, rightly stating that their donors would be harassed and threatened if their names were made public. A lower court agreed with the conservative organization, but was overturned on appeal. The case, which is now before the Supreme Court, could either put the brakes on liberal politicians eager to go after their conservative rivals, or give them a green light to do exactly that.
The second case involves a young woman known only as B.L. Her case, Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. may not seem as serious as the above-mentioned case, but could have a far-reaching impact on schooling. In 2017, B.L took to social media to complain about the fact that she didn’t make the varsity cheerleading squad. In a profanity-laden post, she used the f-word when referring to school, softball, cheer, and everything. Not surprisingly, school officials were less than pleased and B.L.’s coach promptly suspended her from the cheer team.
B.L. and her parents successfully sued the school, and a lower court has already noted that educational institutions have no right to discipline students for off-campus speech. The school is asking the Supreme Court to overturn the ruling. If the court follows the school’s wishes, it would allow every single school in the nation to discriminate against any student that says anything officials don’t agree with — even outside of school. Conservative and even moderately liberal students would be in danger of suspension or even expulsion for social media posts that don’t adhere to school guidelines.
Freedom of speech, belief, press, and association are the foundation of any free society. It’s tempting to dismiss the threats that these cases pose as the court has a conservative majority. However, the fact that these cases are there in the first place is a warning sign.