Utah cheerleader dismissed over profane video says school violated free speech

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SALT LAKE CITY — A Mountain Crest High School student claims in a federal lawsuit that the school violated her free speech rights by kicking her off the cheer squad for posting a video containing profane song lyrics to her personal SnapChat account.

The girl, identified as S.J. in court documents, wants to be reinstated as a cheerleader without punishment and wants the school to amend or remove its policy that she says violates her First Amendment and 14th Amendment rights. She also is seeking changes to policies and practices that result in lighter punishment for male athletes, claiming they violate Title IX.

Corey Johnson, S.J.'s father and the Utah Legal Clinic filed the lawsuit against Cache County School District and Mountain Crest High administrators in U.S. District Court on Thursday.

A Cache spokeswoman said the district couldn't comment Friday because it had yet to be served with the lawsuit.

S.J. and four friends were in a car celebrating making the 2018-19 cheer team in March when one girl connected her cellphone to the stereo and shuffled to a random song. A song titled "IDFWU" by rapper Big Sean began playing and the girls sang along, according to the lawsuit.

S.J. shot an eight-second video of the girls singing, "I don't (expletive) with you, you little (expletive), I ain't (expletive) with you." She intended to save the video to her phone, but accidentally hit a button next to the save button and added it her private SnapChat story, the lawsuit says.

About 30 of her contacts saw the video, and when S.J. realized the mistake about 30 minutes later, she deleted the video.

"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," according to Utah Legal Clinic attorney Angela Elmore.

The following Monday, school administrators asked the girls and their parents to meet with them where they dismissed the students from the cheer squad for "improper social media usage" under the cheer and stunt team constitution.

The school later gave four of the girls tasks, such as community service and making a presentation on proper social media use, that could eventually lead to reinstatement. S.J. was not given a path to reinstatement, according to the suit.

"S.J. has been barred from her chief extracurricular activity on an ongoing basis as punishment for her protected self-expression, and if the cheerleading rules remain in place, S.J. will be subject to continuing censorship of her protected speech," the lawsuit says.

Court documents say S.J. has a good reputation at the school and is consistently on the honor roll. Not being able to participate in cheer would impede her athletic development and opportunity for scholarships, according to the suit.

Johnson appealed the dismissal to the Mountain Crest principal and vice principal as well as the Cache School District superintendent. Earlier this week, administrators agreed to allow S.J. back if she did 50 hours of community service, apologize to the cheer squad, prepare a researched presentation on improper social media use and meet with administrators and coaches to make a plan going forward.

The father and his daughter "refused to accept the punishment for S.J.'s protected speech," according to the lawsuit.

The school's social media policy unconstitutionally extends to students in their homes, churches and into every aspect of their lives, according to the Utah Legal Clinic.

"This was a video shared among friends of a few girls singing along to a song, not on school grounds, not at a school event or even directed at the school," the clinic said in a statement.

Mountain Crest High has a history of treating female athletes differently than male athletes, the lawsuit says.

A football player was criminally charged for sexting in 2016, which violated the school's code and constitution, according to the lawsuit. He received a two-game suspension but not extra tasks or punishments.

Johnson filed a Title IX complaint with the school district, claiming Mountain Crest punishes female athletes more harshly than male athletes.

In response, the lawsuit says, the district's human resources director told him that cheerleaders are held to a higher standard than football players because like student government, the cheer team is "not under the jurisdiction of the Utah High School Activities Association" and because "there is a high expectation that these students actively represent MCHS."

"We find it offensive that the district does not consider (S.J.), or other cheerleaders, athletes, but even worse that she has fewer rights because of it," the Utah Legal Clinic said.

The lawsuit names Cache Superintendent Steven Norton, Mountain Crest Principal Teri Cutler, cheer adviser Lori Reynolds and other district and school administrators as defendants.

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Dennis Romboy
Dennis Romboy is an editor and reporter for the Deseret News. He has covered a variety of beats over the years, including state and local government, social issues and courts. A Utah native, Romboy earned a degree in journalism from the University of Utah. He enjoys cycling, snowboarding and running.


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