Law & Courts

The Supreme Court and Education: What Happened in the 2020-21 Term

By Mark Walsh — July 01, 2021 3 min read

The U.S. Supreme Court issued important decisions on student speech, college athletics, and other issues of interest to educators during the just-concluded 2020-21 term.

It was the first full term conducted remotely because of COVID-19 (after the last few months of the previous term had gone remote in 2020.) The term was also marked by the addition of Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who joined the court in November 2020 after the death in September of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

During this term, the court notably declined to take up a case on transgender student rights, letting stand a lower court victory by transgender student Gavin Grimm over the right to use the school restroom of his choice. And it put off a decision on taking up a major case about affirmative action in higher education by asking President Joe Biden’s administration to weigh in on Harvard University’s consideration of race in undergraduate admissions.

Here are five education-related cases the court did decide on the merits:

Student speech

In Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., the court ruled 8-1 that a Pennsylvania school district violated the First Amendment when it punished a student for posting—while off-campus—a vulgar message on Snapchat expressing frustration about school and her cheerleading team. The majority said students have a right to self-expression and that schools are “nurseries of democracy” that play an important role in facilitating student speech. The school district and some education groups took comfort in the fact that the court said schools would sometimes have sufficient grounds to discipline off-campus speech, such as with severe bullying, threats aimed at teachers or students, and in virtual school.

Amateurism in college sports

In a case being watched in K-12 schools as well as in higher education, the court in National Collegiate Athletic Association v. Alston unanimously upheld a lower-court injunction that authorizes increased education-related compensation of student-athletes, such as for graduate school scholarships, paid post-eligibility internships, and study abroad. The court rejected a lighter form of antitrust scrutiny for the NCAA, and a concurrence suggested that other rules of the main college sports governing are subject to challenge under antitrust law. Some observers in K-12 decision worry about the effects of such changes on the recruitment of high school athletes and on youth sports.

Legal challenges to school policies

In a significant decision regarding litigation involving school and college policies, the justices ruled 8-1 in Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski that a request for nominal damages of as little as $1 can keep a lawsuit challenging a government policy alive even when the agency drops the policy. The case before the court involved a challenge to a community college’s policy of limiting First Amendment activity to a small “free-speech zone.” The college dropped its policy under the challenge and sought to end the suit on that basis. But the Supreme Court revived the suit, holding that even a plea for $1 in nominal damages is enough to maintain a plaintiff’s legal standing.

Juvenile justice

In an important juvenile-justice decision, the court held 6-3 in Jones v. Mississippi that in cases involving defendants who committed murder when they were under 18, a court does not need to make a finding that the offender was “permanently incorrigible” before imposing a sentence of life without parole. The high court stressed that a judge or other sentencing authority must still take the youth of a juvenile offender into account in such cases, a process that often involves examining the offender’s childhood and school record.

Affordable Care Act

In California v. Texas, the court ruled 7-2 that a group of Republican-led states lacked legal standing to challenge the Affordable Care Act after Congress in 2017 eliminated the penalty for not complying with the law’s individual mandate to carry insurance. Both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association had joined a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the signature achievement of President Barack Obama’s administration. The brief emphasized the expanded number of children and young adults covered by health insurance because of provisions in the ACA.

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