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.