Supreme Court Rules Against Bong Hits 4 Jesus Student
The Supreme Court declined the opportunity to strike a blow for the rights of students, instead choosing to uphold a Principal’s decision to suspend a student for displaying what was clearly a nonsensical sign:
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court tightened limits on student speech Monday, ruling 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 a 5-4 ruling.
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 said. “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.”
Morse suspended the student, prompting a federal civil rights lawsuit.
In other words, the actual content of the message doesn’t matter so long as someone in authority thinks that it advocates something that violates school rules. More disturbing, though, is the fact that the Court does not seem to even address the fact that this happened outside the school, a fact which law professor Ann Althouse emphasized when she wrote about this case in January:
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. Itâ€™s quite different from disruptive speech during a lesson. Scalia offered a distinction between â€œdisruptiveâ€ and â€œundermining.â€ The schoolâ€™s real objection is that a pro-drug message undermines the message it endorses. That is, they donâ€™t want disagreement and debate. They still convey their anti-drug message all the time, and this student isnâ€™t interrupting them or even distracting anyone from hearing that message. Heâ€™s just delivering a counter-message on another occasion, and they object to the argument. That should be held to violate the First Amendment.
Unfortunately, Professor Althouse’s views are not shared by the five Justices in the majority.
Update: KipEsquire has two interesting observations:
Best as I can tell after a quick skim, the majority opinion and concurrences completely ignore the pesky little fact that Frederick was over 18 at the time of the incident. Therefore, any portion of the decision or concurrences that rely on Tinker’s* (or any other case’s) distinction between the rights of students and the rights of adults is per se invalid as applied to Frederick, who was an adult at the time.
The gist of Roberts’ opinion seems to be that “fighting drug use” is a sufficiently compelling governmental interest to censor free speech (again, of an adult student not in attendance at the time, off school grounds and displaying what could possibly be deemed a political message).
Or, as Kip puts it, the Court has effectively decided that the War On Drugs trumps the First Amendment.