J.S. v. Manheim Twp. Sch. Dist.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that a student did not engage in unprotected speech and did not cause a substantial disruption to the school environment when he posted a Snapchat story joking about a potential school shooting. The student made the post on his cell phone while he was at home. The school district suspended him for violating its policy against terroristic threats. The case revolved primarily on the well-known Watts “true threat” standard and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s recent decision in Commonwealth v. Knox. The Supreme Court concluded that a reviewing court, as a matter of overarching principle in the school setting, should assess whether an expression is a true threat analysis by considering the totality of the circumstances. More specifically, the primary focus must be on the subjective intent of the speaker. The Court held that any such issue must be subjected to a two-part inquiry: first examining the content of the speech and then assessing relevant contextual factors surrounding the speech. Here, the Court ruled the school district failed to establish that the student’s speech caused a substantial disruption, or impacted the rights of others, to permit the District to punish him for the non-threatening off-campus speech.

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