Pubdate: Sun, 01 Jul 2007
Source: Huntsville Times (AL)
Copyright: 2007 The Huntsville Times
Author: David Prather, for the editorial board
Bookmark: (Bong Hits 4 Jesus)
Bookmark: (Students - United States)


A Student Had Every Right To Unfurl A Smart-Aleck Banner

When you defend free speech, your work is always easier if that speech
advocates love of country, mom and apple pie. Suggesting that a
student has the right to hold up a sign saying "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" on
a public sidewalk across from his campus is a different matter.

Only it isn't. The sign is offensive to some people. And, if you grant
that it is, in the words of Justice John Paul Stevens, a "nonsense

Nevertheless, the U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling that the school
principal was legally permitted to tear down the sign and suspend the
student who unfurled it was unfortunate - and chilling. Worse, it was
argued and decided on the wrong issues.

The majority of the justices agreed, somehow, that the message was one
of drug advocacy rather than a tasteless prank. Exactly how they
reached that conclusion is unclear. Exactly whom they think might be
convinced to smoke marijuana because of the banner is logically
elusive. Exactly why this threatened the safety and order of the
campus across the street is unfathomable.

What transpired during the Olympic Torch rally in Juneau, Alaska, is
what has transpired since time immemorial: Some smart-aleck kid
decided to act out. It's an action that could have been ignored by
officials and, aside from a few hurt feelings by some in the parade
and some bystanders, nothing cataclysmic would have happened.

But by denying then-high-school senior Joseph Frederick his right to
express himself - however stupidly - something momentous did occur.
His First Amendment right was abridged.

And officialdom got another arrow in its quiver to puncture legitimate
- - albeit inane - expression.

No one was falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater. No one was
preaching sedition. What was transpiring - as best anyone can decipher
the silly sign - was a sophomoric opinion on a contentious issue.

And it is precisely such a right that the U.S. Constitution protects.
You don't need freedom to say drugs are bad. You do need freedom to
discuss issues like decriminalization, medical marijuana uses and
related topics. That may make some people uncomfortable, but freedom
isn't about comfort; it's about the right to discuss what we disagree

In the recent film, "The Good Shepherd," Robert De Niro, portraying
the founder of the CIA, warns of the abuse of power that those in
charge are always tempted by. In the end, he says, "I always err on
the side of democracy."

When the Supreme Court recognized student political speech in Tinker
v. Des Moines School District in 1969, it did just that. The court
should have used the Iowa case as a cornerstone for this one. It
should have decided that Frederick's right to express himself
superseded the right of the principal to prohibit him from doing so.

By David Prather, for the editorial board
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