Lesson from SCOTUS Mahanoy ruling: Preparing young people to be digital citizens

Lesson from SCOTUS Mahanoy ruling: Preparing young people to be digital citizens
© Greg Nash

The recent Supreme Court ruling upholding a teenager’s right of self-expression off campus has been hailed by some as a clear-cut victory for student freedom of speech. But in many ways the decision in Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. raises more questions for schools than it answers about surveillance, literacy and civic engagement. In its wake, educators face an urgent need to learn more about the complex nature of communication in the digital age in order to honor the rights of young people as active citizens of an increasingly online democracy.

While the court held that the teenage plaintiff’s vulgar posts on her personal Snapchat account were not subject to school discipline in this particular case, it left the door open to schools regulating other loosely-defined forms of off-campus speech. It also declined to explicitly acknowledge the ways that technology has transformed how youth communicate, advocate and voice opinions in today’s multimedia culture. Finally, the court continued to mischaracterize young people as immature — not-yet-citizens — in need of constant monitoring and supervision.

The boundaries between public and private speech are more confusing than ever, as students can broadcast their words to the world from virtually anywhere their phones can access the internet. Yet, instead of seeking to first better understand how youth are navigating this novel terrain, many schools are immediately seeking to monitor and curtail their voices. Districts are investing in surveillance technologies that monitor everything from students’ social media posts to the objects in their homes visible through teacher webcams — a practice that has only accelerated during the pandemic. Crucially, these tools are disproportionately employed in schools serving high concentrations of students of color, a situation that has the potential to exacerbate the school-to-prison pipeline and perpetuate racial inequities in education.


Yet, just as many educators seek to constrain student agency by framing social media as a source of only risk and danger, examples abound of young people utilizing these same platforms to disseminate their opinions about civic issues and advocate for a more just society. From 17-year-old Darnella Frazier’s viral recording of George Floyd’s murder to an ongoing global climate strike organized primarily by teenagers, youth civic ingenuity is igniting social change across multiple dimensions of American life.

Teachers must adapt to balance valid concerns about cyberbullying with young people’s urgent desire — and right — to participate fully in public life. Our country is facing multiple crises today that are deeply impacting every facet of young people’s lives; they deserve opportunities to read, write, listen and speak about them long before they reach voting age.

We believe that the path forward involves rejecting the many binaries that no longer serve youth (or us as educators) in this complex media environment — child vs. citizen, on-campus vs. off-campus speech, serious “school” literacy vs. superficial social media. Instead, we need to take a more nuanced view of literacy in a digital age and honor the ingenuity and creativity of young people as we support them to take informed and responsible ownership over how they choose to use their voices on the many platforms at their disposal.

Professional organizations like The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) are taking the lead in helping teachers understand how literacy must change to embrace digital transformation and support civic learning. NCTE’s amicus brief in the Mahanoy case stressed the importance of student free speech while also noting the challenges of youth communication in today’s digital ecosystem. In a recent policy brief we co-authored, we argue that young people need to understand the political nature of digital participation today, and the powerful forces that own and organize our favorite platforms. Through their participation in social movements that grow through online — such as #blacklivesmatter, #marchforourlives and the “Dreamer” movement — they are showcasing their own creativity and sense of agency and demonstrating how digital citizenship must be reimagined. 

Considering the role of technology in spreading disinformation and increasing racist and xenophobic attacks, the stakes of understanding digital learning contexts are higher than ever. Rather than attempting to simply silence discomfiting student speech (even if it includes obscenities about the school cheer squad), schools should welcome students into governance deliberations and invite them to participate in robust civic inquiry in the classroom, as we describe in a recent chapter for the National Academy of Education.

Supreme Court Justice Stephen BreyerStephen BreyerWill the justices end race-based affirmative action?  Overnight Health Care — Another Texas abortion setback Supreme Court rebuffs abortion providers again over Texas 6-week ban MORE wrote in the majority opinion that student off-campus expression must be protected because public schools are “nurseries of democracy” where students learn about their civil rights. We are concerned rather than heartened by Breyer’s metaphor. We think his word choice reflects a troubling trend in schools today — students are more often experiencing the control of a nursery rather than the rights of democracy. We must treat young people as the powerful and innovative civic agents that they are rather than as infants to be coddled.


Antero Garcia is an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University and a member of National Council of Teachers of English.

Nicole Mirra is an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University and a member of National Council of Teachers of English.