Pubdate: Sat, 24 Mar 2007
Source: Economist, The (UK)
Copyright: 2007 The Economist Newspaper Limited
Alert: Bong Hits 4 Jesus Is About Free Speech, Not Drugs
Bookmark: (Bong Hits 4 Jesus)
Bookmark: (Students - United States)
Bookmark: (Marijuana)

Free Speech in Schools


Washington, DC

The Supreme Court Mulls a Schoolboy Prank

THE American constitution protects the right to free speech even of 
those who have nothing to say. Take, for example, the banner that 
Joseph Frederick, then an 18-year-old schoolboy, unfurled beside an 
Olympic parade in Alaska five years ago. It read: "Bong hits 4 
Jesus". Was he mocking Christianity? Or promoting marijuana? Neither, 
says Mr Frederick. He copied the slogan from a snowboard. He did not 
think it meant anything particular. But he calculated that it would 
be funny and controversial. Plus, it might get him on television.

Deborah Morse, the head teacher at Mr Frederick's high school, was 
not amused. She thought the banner was a deliberate attempt to 
subvert the school's anti-drugs policy, and worried that it would 
spark unruliness. Students had been excused classes so they could 
watch the parade. Some were already throwing snowballs and plastic 
bottles from the pavement.

On seeing Mr Frederick's banner, Ms Morse marched up and ordered him 
to furl it. When he refused, she gave him a five-day suspension. 
Annoyingly, the youth quoted Thomas Jefferson at her. She doubled his 
suspension. He sued. The case has been appealed all the way to the 
Supreme Court, where it was heard on March 19th.

At the heart of the case is the tension between free speech and 
school discipline. Precedent pulls both ways. In 1969, the Supreme 
Court said a school could not stop students from wearing black 
armbands to class to protest against the Vietnam war. Pupils do not 
"shed their constitutional the schoolhouse gate," said 
the justices; they can say what they like so long as they do not 
substantially interfere with school discipline. Subsequent cases 
qualified this right a little. For example, in Bethel v Fraser in 
1986, the court said a school was allowed to punish a student who 
gave a speech bursting with sexual innuendo.

Mr Frederick is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union. 
His case has several prongs. First, he was outside school, so the 
head teacher had no jurisdiction over him. Second, his banner was not 
aimed at interfering with school discipline. Third, he says he was 
making a statement about free speech, a right he had learned about in 
class but which the school did not, in his view, honour.

The school's case is that Mr Frederick was at a school-approved event 
on a school day, so the principal was entitled to tell him what to 
do. Further, since illegal drugs are harmful and the school opposed 
them, Mr Frederick's banner was likely to "undermine the school's 
basic educational mission". And a school can censor statements that 
do that, argues Kenneth Starr (of Monica Lewinsky fame), who is 
representing the school board pro bono.

Listening to both sides' arguments, the nine justices seemed torn. If 
they swallow all Mr Starr's reasoning, that would give schools vast 
leeway to restrict pupils' speech. That is why several conservative 
Christian groups are siding with the young pot enthusiast; they worry 
that politically-correct schools will punish devout students for 
expressing Biblical views about, for example, homosexuality.

On the other hand, the case is not only about free speech. It is also 
about money, noted John Roberts, the chief justice. Mr Frederick is 
suing his former head teacher personally for damages. Mr Roberts was 
not the only justice to worry that if teachers live in fear of a 
ruinous lawsuit every time they tell a pupil to be quiet, they might 
find it hard to keep order.

The court will probably take some time to rule. Some predict that it 
will uphold Mr Frederick's right to make his point, whatever it was, 
but scotch his attempt to squeeze damages out of Ms Morse. Mr 
Frederick, who was arrested for selling marijuana while at college, 
now teaches English in China, where free-speech-loving students are 
treated less gently. 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake