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March 20, 2007

Bong Hits 4 Jesus And Freedom Of Speech

by 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.

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27 Comments

  1. I knew the second i read about this case it would come back to bite the school board in the ass. They’ve made fools of themselves confronting a non-sensical banner outside of their jurisdiction. I think its fantastic such an absurd slogan has been attached to an important issue on student rights. this affirms what many prudish educators would rather not admit, that students can think for themselves.

    Comment by Al — March 20, 2007 @ 11:55 am
  2. I am glad people are standing up for freedom of religion. this country was founded on religion & Christian principles.

    Comment by Rose Marie — March 20, 2007 @ 12:53 pm
  3. What does “Bong hits 4 Jesus” mean?

    Comment by VRB — March 20, 2007 @ 1:24 pm
  4. Lies. Sometime maybe someone will relize that laws written as a result of LIES rarely do ANY good.
    Consider that; the president lied about intelligence and indeed tried to manufacture false intelligence, to futher his plan to invade Iraq.
    Consider that; this adminstration Lied about Global warming and Doctored scientific reports and data to futher muddy the water and give the impression that there was any controversy amoung honest scientists about the seriousness of Global warming.
    Consider that; The testimony that resulted in Marijauna becoming Illegal was, you guessed it, LIES.
    The FDA the CDC and the drug companies have repeatedly been caught lying about research, side effects and off label use for their profitable replacements for one of the oldest and safest
    mood elevators known to man.
    Some might say you are soft on drugs, but I say you are soft on another man’s freedom.

    Comment by Michael Condon — March 20, 2007 @ 1:26 pm
  5. VRB,

    I don’t think it means anything, the student has said that he meant the whole thing as a joke.

    Comment by Doug Mataconis — March 20, 2007 @ 1:43 pm
  6. If the banner had said, “Bong hits 4 Muhammad.” this would an entirely different discussion. I don’t like the banner, but, a person in an authoritative position must know his/her jurisdiction. The message is in extremely poor taste. Our freedoms as American citizens should not be excuses for evil.

    Comment by stephen — March 20, 2007 @ 1:56 pm
  7. Stephen, the First Amendment doesn’t say anything about “good taste” or “poor taste”.

    Michael, what you say is all well and good, but what has it got to do this this post?

    Comment by Steven Den Beste — March 20, 2007 @ 3:32 pm
  8. I would have to ask how far is too far?
    Does it mean I do not like your dog so I shoot it and then say well it was a joke and invoke my constitutional rights to not like dogs?
    Or maybe use your car as a toilet and say well it was only a joke?
    Hack your bank account and claim my right to use the internet?
    Where does it end?

    Comment by ed — March 20, 2007 @ 3:38 pm
  9. Hello,

    I await impatiently a news of your wide-spread debate over the impact of growing gay influence on our society. Obviously, we no longer have a free press since only gay-friendly views are presented and freedom of speech is compromised too: anything anti-gay is inappropriate.
    Ignorance never had it better. I have to congratulate you as a contributors to that mess.
    Al Quida is laughing…

    Comment by Krys — March 20, 2007 @ 3:40 pm
  10. Well, it is clear that the arrogance of this principal is beyond bearing.

    You don’t regulate what my kids will do or not do beyond the borders of school grounds even if it means my pulling them out.

    Who the hell do these teachers think they are? They teach them it is okay to be gay, to play (sexually) but don’t you DARE disagree with us?

    I hope the man takes her for everything she is worth. This principal is exactly what is wrong with American education.

    Comment by Tim Singleton — March 20, 2007 @ 3:44 pm
  11. God bless USA. You folks must be glad you leave in the land of freedom. Consider this, if the protestor had lived in Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, or anywhere else other than some of the European countries, that student would have been jailed and hanged after years of tortured just because he expressed his freedom of speech.
    God loves this country, be grateful and violence.

    Comment by Matt Alavi — March 20, 2007 @ 3:51 pm
  12. Ed,

    every single example you gave casues harm. What exactly is the harm caused by “Bong Hits 4 Jesus”?

    Nick

    Comment by Nick M. — March 20, 2007 @ 4:06 pm
  13. Maybe the kid should claim he left off part of the sign. It should have said, “Bong Hits 4, Jesus 9.”

    Comment by The Sarcasticynic — March 20, 2007 @ 4:22 pm
  14. The principal is wrong here. She should be reprimanded in some way. Suing her is silly though.
    I agree with her ripping the sign up but it should have nothing to do with school. If you’re going to sue the Principal or school, then give the kid a drug test. If you’re stupid enough to condone drug use (even if it’s only a joke) then you should be tested for it.
    Making public jokes regarding religous figures is also highly ignorant.

    Comment by stephen — March 20, 2007 @ 4:37 pm
  15. to the sarcasticynic, does that mean Jesus wins?!

    Comment by stephen — March 20, 2007 @ 4:41 pm
  16. And seriously, isn’t “bong hits 4 jesus” something we all do, in our own living rooms, about 6 days a week?

    …maybe that’s just me.

    Comment by Spacelab — March 20, 2007 @ 4:45 pm
  17. NICK,
    Its just an example of what is too far?
    How about smoking within 25 feet of you(I do not smoke),talking as loud as I can in a movie theater,driving my car along side of you for 20 miles.
    In other words, it annoy’s people and not one person rights over run everyone elses.
    Your opinion is yours,Not everyone who is in eye shot.
    In washington state we have a town that allows nude people no matter who to ride bicycles in a parade in front of kids, I don’t like that either.
    I do not say your do not have the right of speech,I think it was the wrong message and he knew exactly what response it would bring.
    He is probably a rich boy who has always had his way.And used daddy’s money to sue.

    Comment by ed — March 20, 2007 @ 4:59 pm
  18. “”"Consider this, if the protestor had lived in Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, or anywhere else other than some of the European countries, that student would have been jailed and hanged after years of tortured just because he expressed his freedom of speech.”"”

    Hey, asshole – consider this – in this wonderful country full of freedom – you can’t actually buy or sell a bong, buy or sell marijuana, smoke it, or carry it on your person or in your vehicle.

    Have enough of it, and you get thrown in jail. For years.

    Hypocrite.

    Comment by Mike — March 20, 2007 @ 5:01 pm
  19. Ed,

    You are still using examples that harm people.

    Smoking – harms people with asthma
    talking loudly in the movie – ruins my movie experience which I paid for.
    driving alongside me – depends on the type of road, could be dangerous.

    None of these are free speech. In public, as long as my speech or actions aren’t harming anyone, it’s protected.

    Nude bicyclists aren’t harming anyone. If you don’t like it, take your kids elsewhere.

    This banner was not harming anyone. It was also getting a positive message out. Both Jesus and bong hits promote peace.

    As far as how far is too far, I will go with the standard, “My fredom to swing my fist ends at your nose.”

    To put that in terms of free speech, my freedom to speak ends at the point that I cause you harm. Offending you isn’t harm.

    Nick

    Comment by Nick M. — March 20, 2007 @ 5:11 pm
  20. I would like to clarify. The only thing I would even think about involving law in is the example of driving beside me, and only then if it actually was dangerous.

    Smoking, I would explain my issue to the smoker and try to work it out or leave.

    Movie theatre, I would ask the persone to quiet down, and if they did not, I involve management.

    Nick

    Comment by Nick M. — March 20, 2007 @ 5:20 pm
  21. I spent a lot of time in service for you rights,How about you Nick.
    Since you are opinionated and you will find fault with anything I say.
    I feel driving along side of you constitutes no harm as long as I do not cross the line.
    It’s just annoying.
    I have wasted enough space and others have important things to say.
    Tell mom you are done with her computer now.

    Comment by ed — March 20, 2007 @ 5:27 pm
  22. Ah yes, the old “I’m a vet, so my opinion is more important than yours” argument. Dude, your sentences barely make sense. I will agree that as along as you stay on your side of the line you are not dangerous to me. To others maybe, but not me. So, I couldn’t care less.

    Yes, please do stop wasting space with your inane drivel.

    Gotta go, mom’s making Velveeta Shells & Cheese.

    Nick

    Comment by Nick M. — March 20, 2007 @ 5:59 pm
  23. As a vet myself, I seriously question whether anything the military does defends the rights of Americans. Nothing I did ever defended a single American’s civil liberties, in fact I cringe at the tax-dollars I helped consume to no good end.

    The Mexican war, the Indian Wars, the annexation of Hawaii, the Spanish American War, the brutal supression of the Phillipine independence movement, the forcible opening of Japanese ports, the interventions in China, our late entry into World War I, our involvement in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Somalia, Yugoslavia, and now Iraq and Afghanistan, none of these wars were fought to protect Americans. Oh, often the government would come out and whip up the people into believing that they were defending American lives, and most of these wars seem to have been justified on the pretext that they had attacked our navy, but in the end, when you scratch deeply, often you find some group either engineering the war for their own profit, or accidentally trigerring it as they meddle and interfere overseas for their own profit.

    The fact is, with the exception of the War Between the States and the War of 1812, the United States Army has not defended American territory from attack. During those wars, the U.S. government behaved quite tyrannically, and certainly in no way respected the freedoms of the American citizenry. I would even go further and argue that each war eroded the freedom of the citizenry and permanently expanded government power. I think one can make a credible case for the War of 1812 being a primarily defensive war, certainly no other war ever was defensive.

    In fact, I find the first use of the United States Army after the ratification of the U.S. constitution is more representative of the spirit of its use: the army marched against farmers who refused to pay Alexander Hamilton’s tax on whiskey.

    Most soldiers believe that they are defending their country. I certainly joined the U.S. Navy for that very reason. However, in practicality, the U.S. soldier goes where the president tells him to go. Shoots whomever the president tells him to, and often dies, not defending freedom, but advancing some scheme cooked up by a politically connected cabal for their own profit.

    If you really want to defend your country, my advice is to buy a rifle, become proficient in its use, and be ready to defend your land should the notoriously warlike Canadians or Mexicans ever invade.

    Comment by tarran — March 20, 2007 @ 9:08 pm
  24. To me, this whole case is another argument against public education. In theory, with private education, school administrators would be free to make their own policies regardding issues like this, and if students didn’t like them, they’d go somewhere else.

    Comment by Ryan — March 20, 2007 @ 11:41 pm
  25. Mike, when I made the following comments ““””Consider this, if the protestor had lived in Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, or anywhere else other than some of the European countries, that student would have been jailed and hanged after years of tortured just because he expressed his freedom of speech.”””
    Your response was “Hey, asshole – consider this – in this wonderful country full of freedom – you can’t actually buy or sell a bong, buy or sell marijuana, smoke it, or carry it on your person or in your vehicle.”

    I am glad to know you are still alive and not in jail and tortured to be able to exercise your freedom of speech.
    If smoking or handling marijuana is illegal, then you have a chance with your vote to make a difference, no matter how small it is. Unlike some people who have no chance to make difference even with shedding their own blood.
    Be grateful you live in land of freedom and you can exercise your rights.
    There is old saying, “when you are not hungry, nothing taste good”. In another word, when you have all the freedoms, other than illegal activities, then no freedom is appealing. The word anarchy comes to mind.

    Comment by Matt Alavi — March 21, 2007 @ 6:57 am
  26. It is a free speech case….no more…no less
    He was on public property at a public event.
    The poster was his personal property.
    The principal attacked the boy, destroyed his property and then attempted to restrict the boys 1st Amendment rights.
    The 1st amendment is sacred…it’s first for a reason.
    You may not like the message, but that is the point.
    The first amendment protects “unpopular” speech and thought.
    If you don’t like it….move somewhere without the protection….and then see how “free” you are.

    Comment by Glenn the Civics Teacher — March 21, 2007 @ 2:57 pm
  27. This song reflects the tension involved in the competing desires of wanting to protect teens from drugs, on the one hand, and wanting to preserve free speech on the other:

    Bong Hits 4 Jesus (the song)
    Dr BLT
    words and music by Dr BLT (c) 2007
    http://www.drblt.net/music/bongHITS4.mp3

    Comment by Dr BLT — March 23, 2007 @ 12:45 pm

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