Pubdate: Fri, 23 Mar 2007
Source: Daily Herald, The (Provo, UT)
Page: A6
Copyright: 2007 The Daily Herald
Bookmark: (Bong Hits 4 Jesus)
Bookmark: (Marijuana)



How far can a school go in regulating what students say, even off

That's the question the Supreme Court is wrestling with in the case of
Morse v. Frederick, also known as the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" case.

The case dates back to 2002, when the Olympic Flame was making its way
to Salt Lake City. When the torch run passed through Juneau, Alaska,
students from Juneau-Douglas High School were given a break from class
to watch. Joseph Frederick, then a senior, was across the street from
the school holding up a sign that read "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" (whatever
that means) as the torch passed.

Frederick said his sign was a nonsensical attempt to get on
television, like the wacky signs people hold up at football games in
hopes of getting a few seconds' worth of fame on ESPN.

Unfortunately, Frederick's school principal, Deborah Morse, didn't see
it that way. Morse tore the sign from Frederick's hands and issued him
a five-day suspension for violating the school's anti-drug policy by
advocating marijuana use. The suspension was lengthened to 10 days
after Frederick quoted Thomas Jefferson to justify his display of the

Frederick's lawsuit against Morse was initially dismissed by a federal
judge but reinstated by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which
decided the principal violated Frederick's right to free speech,
sparking the current appeal.

The case has brought together a motley group. Kenneth Starr, the
former independent counsel who investigated President Clinton, is
representing Morse and the school district. Among those who have filed
friend-of-the-court briefs in her behalf are American Association of
School Administrators, the National School Boards Association and
former drug czars Barry McCaffrey and William J. Bennett.

On the other side, groups ranging from the conservative Rutherford
Institute to the Drug Policy Alliance, a group that advocates easing
restrictions on marijuana, have filed amicus briefs, as did the
Student Press Law Center, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund and
the Christian Legal Society.

The court should decide in favor of Frederick. To do otherwise would
be dangerous.

In 1969, the Supreme Court ruled in Tinker v. Des Moines that students
do not give up their rights to free expression at the schoolhouse
gate. In Tinker, the court declared that a student's speech could only
be restricted if it created a "substantial interference" with school

But that right has been eroded, most recently in the 1988 Hazelwood v.
Kuhlmeier decision that gave schools the authority to censor student
publications. That decision has turned many student newspapers into
bland public relations organs for school administrators.

While the Supreme Court has allowed some censorship on school grounds,
it seemed that students should be able to exercise their free-speech
rights off campus. In this case, the school actually released the students.

There have been instances where school officials have gone after Web
sites students created on home computers, but administrators used the
argument that students accessed the controversial sites at school and
caused disruption to campus life, thus justifying a crackdown.

If the court rules against Frederick, it could extend a school's power
to censor speech far beyond the school yard. Frederick was across the
street from his school when he committed the act for which he was
punished. A ruling in Morse's favor could embolden school officials to
go after students anywhere for saying things they don't like, claiming
that the message contradicted a school's mission.

Justice Samuel Alito said during the arguments Monday that a school
could extend its mission statement to justify squelching any student
who says something the administration doesn't like. Such a rule would
make a mockery of the First Amendment's explicit protection of expression.

For instance, a school could conceivably punish a student for wearing
a T-shirt supporting a political candidate because it could be
perceived as violating a policy on political neutrality.

Teaching children that they can be punished by their principals for
what they say when they're outside school sends the message that free
speech is not an inherent right, but rather a privilege that officials
grant as long as one's words have been cleared by the

It's a bad seed to plant. People should be free to challenge authority
- -- even (or perhaps especially) youth.

The First Amendment is already in trouble with the rising generation.
A 2006 survey by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation found that
46 percent of high school students think newspapers should only
publish stories with government approval. We can't afford to lose any
more ground with our youth when it comes to a bedrock principle of
American life.

Students learn about free speech by exercising it. Will students make
mistakes and say things that are impolitic or outrageous? Of course.
But so do adults, and the republic hasn't collapsed yet because of it.
Students need to learn that the First Amendment protects dissenting
voices and goofy statements.

Except for a very narrow set of circumstances in which speech is
likely to result in an immediate breach of the peace, and where there
is a compelling state interest, the government (including the public
schools) should not be allowed to muzzle anybody's voice.



Should schools punish students for off-campus speech? Send your
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