Clarence Thomas and Student Speech Rights in Mahanoy Area School District v. B. L.
A. Scott Henderson
In a series of cases since the 1960s, the U.S. Supreme Court has determined when public k-12 students can exercise their right to free speech. Complicating this jurisprudence has been the rise of smart phones and social media platforms, at times blurring the distinction between on- and off-campus speech. In a 2021 case, Mahanoy Area School District v. B. L., the Court grappled with this issue. Especially notable about the Court’s decision was the lone dissent by Justice Clarence Thomas, in which he maintained his longstanding belief that student speech rights are significantly limited, whether students are on or off campus. Thomas’s dissent, informed by his judicial philosophy of originalism and the legal doctrine of in loco parentis, is problematic because it runs counter to the role of public schools as sites for inculcating democratic citizenship, a particularly important function when democratic norms and institutions are facing increasing attacks.