Bong Hits 4 Jesus And Freedom Of Speechby Doug Mataconis
Yesterday, the Supreme Court heard argument in what has come to be known as the “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” case. The facts of the case are pretty straightforward, but it’s led to some interesting political alliances:
WASHINGTON (CNN) — The Supreme Court Monday debated the case of a high school principal who suspended a student over a “Bong Hits 4 Jesus,” banner displayed at a school-sponsored event.
The free-speech case tests the limits of student messages officials could try to suppress.
Joseph Frederick, then 18, unveiled the 14-foot paper sign on a public sidewalk outside his Juneau, Alaska, high school. Principal Deborah Morse confiscated it and later suspended the young man.
At issue was whether Frederick’s free-speech rights were violated and the discretion schools should be allowed to limit messages that appear to advocate illegal drug use.
A large part of the school board’s argument, which was made before the Supreme Court by none other than Kenneth Starr, was that the Principal should be allowed to regulate speech that disrupts the educational atmosphere of the school. As several Justices pointed out, though, that argument doesn’t stand up to the facts of this case where the banner was unveiled on a public sidewalk away from school grounds while the students watch the Olympic Torch pass through Juneau:
“There was no classroom here,” said Kennedy.
“This was education outside a classroom,” replied Starr of the torch relay observation.
“What did it disrupt on the sidewalk?” asked Souter of Frederick’s banner.
“The educational mission of the school,” was Starr’s answer.
“The school can make any rule that it wants on any subject restrictive of speech, and if anyone violates it, it’s disruptive?” asked Souter.
Justice Samuel Alito, alone among his conservative bench mates, appeared sharply critical of the school’s position
“I find that a very, very disturbing argument,” he said, “because schools have and they can define their educational mission so broadly that they can suppress all sorts of political speech and speech expressing fundamental values of the students, under the banner of getting rid of speech that’s inconsistent with educational missions.”
And, more importantly, that they can do so outside of school grounds during what is essentially a sanctioned recreational activity.
Law Professor Ann Althouse sums up how this case ought to turn out quite nicely:
This case is about something that happened on the street and not in a classroom. The banner was, of course, silent, and the occasion was a parade. It’s quite different from disruptive speech during a lesson. Scalia offered a distinction between “disruptive” and “undermining.” The school’s real objection is that a pro-drug message undermines the message it endorses. That is, they don’t want disagreement and debate. They still convey their anti-drug message all the time, and this student isn’t interrupting them or even distracting anyone from hearing that message. He’s just delivering a counter-message on another occasion, and they object to the argument. That should be held to violate the First Amendment.
The Supreme Court held long ago that students do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse door, although they have recognized some limits on those rights that take into account both their status as minors and the need for school authorities to maintain order and discipline in the school.
Clearly, if students have rights inside the school, they have rights outside it even while under the supervision of school authorities. “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” may not be the most eloquent political statement in American history, but the school authorities had no right to punish Frederick for saying it.