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High court limits student speech in 'Bong Hits 4 Jesus' case

By The Associated Press
06.25.07

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court tightened limits on student speech today, ruling 5-4 against a high school student and his 14-foot-long "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" banner.

Schools may prohibit student expression that can be interpreted as advocating drug use, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the Court in Morse v. Frederick, 06-278.

Joseph Frederick unfurled his homemade sign on a winter morning in 2002, as the Olympic torch made its way through Juneau, Alaska, en route to the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

Frederick said the banner was a nonsensical message that he first saw on a snowboard. He intended the banner to proclaim his right to say anything at all.

His principal, Deborah Morse, said the phrase was a pro-drug message that had no place at a school-sanctioned event. Frederick denied that he was advocating for drug use.

"The message on Frederick's banner is cryptic," Roberts wrote for the majority. "It is no doubt offensive to some, perhaps amusing to others. To still others, it probably means nothing at all. Frederick himself claimed 'that the words were just nonsense meant to attract television cameras.' But Principal Morse thought the banner would be interpreted by those viewing it as promoting illegal drug use, and that interpretation is plainly a reasonable one.

"The question thus becomes whether a principal may, consistent with the First Amendment, restrict student speech at a school event, when that speech is reasonably viewed as promoting illegal drug use. We hold that she may."

Morse suspended the student, prompting a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The winning side in the case was quick to assert that the decision was not anti-free speech.

In their concurrence, Justices Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy specified that the Court's opinion provides no support for any restriction on speech that goes to political or social issues.

Alito wrote: "The opinion of the Court does not endorse the broad argument advanced by petitioners and the United States that the First Amendment permits public school officials to censor any student speech that interferes with a school's 'educational mission.' This argument can easily be manipulated in dangerous ways, and I would reject it before such abuse occurs."

Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in dissent: "In my judgment, the First Amendment protects student speech if the message itself neither violates a permissible rule nor expressly advocates conduct that is illegal and harmful to students. This nonsense banner does neither, and the court does serious violence to the First Amendment in upholding — indeed, lauding — a school's decision to punish Frederick for expressing a view with which it disagreed."

It's a narrow ruling that "should not be read more broadly," said Kenneth Starr, whose law firm represented the school principal.

Students in public schools don't have the same rights as adults, but neither do they leave their constitutional protections at the schoolhouse gate, as the Court said in a landmark speech-rights ruling from Vietnam era, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School Dist.

The Court has limited what students can do in subsequent cases, saying they may not be disruptive or lewd or interfere with a school's basic educational mission.

Frederick, now 23, said he later had to drop out of college after his father lost his job. The elder Frederick, who worked for the company that insures the Juneau schools, was fired in connection with his son's legal fight, the son said. A jury recently awarded Frank Frederick $200,000 in a lawsuit he filed over his firing.

Joseph Frederick, who has been teaching and studying in China, pleaded guilty in 2004 to a misdemeanor charge of selling marijuana at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, according to court records.

Conservative groups that often are allied with the administration backed Frederick out of concern that a ruling for Morse would let schools clamp down on religious expression, including speech that might oppose homosexuality or abortion.


Previous
High court hears 'Bong Hits 4 Jesus' case
Justice Breyer says he's struggling with free-speech/school-discipline issues raised when student was suspended for displaying banner at school outing; students rally outside Supreme Court. 03.19.07

Related

Quick look: Morse v. Frederick

06.29.07

Judge: District won't pay damages in 'Bong Hits' case
Attorney for former student who displayed banner in case that reached high court says state issues can still be appealed. 10.15.07

Mo. teen files free-speech suit in photo flap
Superintendent says it was classroom disruption — not Logan Glover's surreptitious picture-taking and posting of images of teacher — that prompted discipline. 12.18.07

Justices may take centrist view of 'Bong Hits' case
By Tony Mauro Wariness of giving schools too much power over student speech contends with desire to help them fight drug use. 03.20.07

First Amendment claims get mixed reception at Court
By Tony Mauro Rulings shed light on how more conservative majority looks at the First Amendment — and how the moderate-liberal wing is losing ground. 06.26.07

Morse v. Frederick: history, policy and temptation
By William D. Araiza In student-speech and other cases, Justice Thomas' approach reflects discomfort with the balancing and line-drawing that marks much of the Court’s recent free-speech jurisprudence. 10.08.07

Is this the 'youth voice'?
By Sam Chaltain Student's 'bong hits' banner case at high court lacks the moral import of 1969 Tinker ruling — suggesting an eroding quality of discourse in our country. 03.21.07

‘Bong Hits’ case may clarify scope of student speech
By Gene Policinski How much leeway should school officials have to declare expression by students to be 'disruptive'? 03.25.07

Saving free speech and Jesus
By Nat Hentoff What makes 'Bong Hits 4 Jesus' case startlingly unique is number of conservative and religious groups supporting Joe Frederick's right to unfurl his banner. 04.13.07

Did student-speech rights go up in smoke?
By David L. Hudson Jr. Court's ruling in 'Bong Hits' case limits student speech, but it wasn't a complete disaster. 06.27.07

For high school students, free speech is no joke
By Charles C. Haynes Narrowly drawn as Supreme Court justices tried to make 'Bong Hits 4 Jesus' ruling, don’t be surprised when many school officials and judges use it to find new grounds for censoring students. 07.08.07

5th Circuit extends limits on student speech
By Douglas Lee Panel makes several curious twists and turns to reach conclusion that its decision 'follow(s) the lead' of recent Supreme Court ruling. 11.27.07

2006-07 Supreme Court case tracker

K-12 public school student expression


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