A Utah high school dismissed a cheerleader from its squad after she posted a video showing herself and four other girls singing along to a rap song that includes explicit lyrics — though she was not on school property, did not refer to the school and was not participating in a school activity at the time.
Her father now intends to fight the district’s action.
In a lawsuit filed Thursday, Corey Johnson argues that Mountain Crest High School in Hyrum violated the First Amendment in punishing his daughter, identified by the initials S.J., for “speaking freely” while off campus. And he demands she be reinstated as a cheerleader.
“We filed this suit in the hopes that it will spur the district to change what we believe to be an obviously unconstitutional policy,” the Utah Legal Clinic, which is representing the family, said in a statement Friday. “This is not an instance in which this young woman was engaging in hate speech or bullying; this was a teenager singing along to a song on the radio with her friends and that song happened to have curse words in it.”
S.J. was driving around town with four other girls March 15, celebrating after they’d all made it on the cheerleading squad for the 2018-19 academic year. One of them plugged their phone into the stereo. On shuffle, “I.D.F.W.U.” by rapper Big Sean played.
As they shouted the lyrics, S.J. recorded an eight-second video. “I don’t f--- with you, you little stupid a-- b----. I ain’t f---ing with you,” the girls sang. The lawsuit states that S.J. did not mean to share the recording on her private Snapchat account, but did so accidentally. After about 30 minutes, she deleted it.
Four days later, the high school’s administrators and cheer coach dismissed the girls from the team, citing the squad’s constitution that prohibits “improper social media usage.” Four of the students were then allowed back on after completing community service hours. Initially, S.J. was not.
After her father appealed, she, too, was offered reinstatement if she completed 50 hours of service, apologized to the cheer team, gave a presentation on proper social media use and met with the coach to develop a “positive plan to move forward.” Johnson refused to accept the requirements, which he felt were “continuing censorship of [S.J.’s] protected speech.”
“This policy, if applied as it was in this case, reaches children in their homes, churches and into every aspect of a student’s life and they are not free to express themselves even amongst their friends at a critical time in their development where expression should be encouraged,” added the Utah Legal Clinic.
Officials at Cache County School District, named as one of the defendants in the lawsuit, said they had not yet seen the court filing.
“If we are served, and after we have a chance to review the details, we would be happy to comment,” said spokesman Tim Smith. He did not respond to a question about the school’s policy for disciplinary action against cheerleaders.
Johnson alleges in the suit that members of the squad are held to higher standards than other sports teams — and that female athletes are disciplined more harshly than male athletes. He mentions a football player at Mountain Crest High School who in 2016 was charged with distributing sexual photographs in text messages. The student got a two-game suspension.
In a written response to a separate Title IX complaint Johnson filed with the school, the district’s human resources director says the cheer team doesn’t fall under the Utah High School Activities Association like football. The two activities, then, don’t have the same rules and guidelines.
Cheer is in the same category as student government, the director adds, and “there is a high expectation that these students actively represent MCHS.”
In the filing, Johnson notes his daughter is “consistently on the honor roll” and fears that being kicked off the squad will interfere with potential scholarship offers when she applies to college.
Last year, Weber High School investigated a similar case where a group of students — including three girls on its cheerleading team — chanted racial slurs and vulgarities in a video that later circulated online. They, too, were not on school property when they took turns saying “F--- n------” and laughing into the camera.
The district spokesman later said it appeared the girls were saying “serggin cuff” and edited the video to play backward, producing the offensive language. While school administrators considered what discipline would be appropriate, the three team members resigned from the squad.