As SCOTUS Deliberates on Off-Campus Discipline for Students, Southern Evangelical Seminary Makes a Case for Free Speech

SES: ‘There Are Several Important Distinctions for SCOTUS to Consider’

May 3, 2021

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Last week, The U.S. Supreme Court considered whether public schools can “discipline students for things they say off campus,” making the choice to either “overly restrict [student] speech” or perhaps render public school educators “powerless to deal with [student] bullying.”

The case concerns Brandi Levy of Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania. While at a convenience store with a friend, Levy expressed her frustration for not being appointed a position on her school’s varsity cheerleading squad by posting on Snapchat using extreme profane language and rude gestures.

Consequently, Levy was suspended from her school, and her parents filed suit against the school. The U.S. Supreme Court, who heard the arguments in the case, grappled with the need to “protect students’ political and religious expression” with the “ability of schools to get at disruptive, even potentially dangerous, speech” – even if said speech occurs outside of the school setting. A decision on this case is expected in June 2021.

“The Supreme Court of the United States has heard a free-speech case that has significant implications for Christians,” said Dr. Bernard James Mauser, Professor of Philosophy at Southern Evangelical Seminary (SES, www.ses.edu). “The nine Justices evaluated arguments about whether a public government school had the right to discipline a fourteen-year-old for cursing outside of the school setting. There are several distinctions that are important to consider in this case.

“When we look at what the Constitution actually says about speech, we find the following in the First Amendment: ‘Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.’ James Madison, who authored the Constitution, explains, ‘The people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write, or to publish their sentiments; and the freedom of the press, as one of the great bulwarks of liberty, shall be inviolable.’

“Madison says that free speech is inviolable. Although it appears straightforward from a Constitutional perspective, the twentieth century Justices qualified this amendment with certain speech government deemed to be prohibited. Oliver Wendell Holmes used the example of shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater as restricted speech. Due to this, certain speech is not inviolable, argued Holmes. This led to a chain of other decisions where Justices tried to parse out what those in power thought were appropriate forms of speech and those that were not. 

“We should be able to see the danger from a Christian perspective. What if the powers that be rule that the Bible and the Gospel are not appropriate? Some have considered the Scriptures as hate speech. Should we obey men, or should we obey God on this? Always ask yourself the question, ‘What would society be like if the power I give the authority has the opposite view of me?’ This should encourage us to restrict the powers of government to a very narrow set of behaviors where they can protect life, liberty, and property. 

“This brings three realizations. First, we should protect everyone’s right to free speech and especially those who differ from us. If one is justified in restricting another person’s speech just because you find it immoral or offensive, they may take power and use the same reasoning to remove your rights to free speech. Logical consistency should force us to realize the sword cuts both ways.

“Second, the problem with shouting fire when there is no fire in the crowded theater is that you are violating the property rights of the theater owner and the customers [who] paid to see a show. Seeing speech as a property right resolves the problems Holmes tries to raise in his example.

“Third, recognize the essential truth about man as a rational being having an intellect and a free will. We can speak and say good or evil things due to our intellect. We may try to persuade others of our case. However, we can’t coerce people merely with our words. Consider the case of Ronald Ray Howard. In 1992, Howard murdered State Trooper Bill Davidson after being stopped for a broken headlight. His defense was that the violent rap lyrics of Tupac which urged the killing of police officers made him do it. He had no choice. The jury didn’t buy this defense. They recognized there is a difference between speech and action, and we all know it as well.”

Dr. Mauser will be teaching an online summer module May 17-22 at SES titled “Philosophy, Politics, and Economics,” which is an introduction to the philosophical concepts behind modern government and economics that specifically examines the American experience, the debates between different schools of economic thought, and the consequences (register at ses.edu).

For more information on SES, visit its website at www.ses.edu or its Facebook page, follow the SES Twitter feed, @sesapologetics, or call (704) 847-5600.

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To interview Dr. Bernard James Mauser of Southern Evangelical Seminary, contact Hamilton Strategies, Media@HamiltonStrategies.com, Jeff Tolson, 610.584.1096, ext. 108, or Deborah Hamilton, ext. 102.