Pubdate: Mon, 09 Jul 2007
Source: Lufkin Daily News (TX)
Copyright: 2007 The Lufkin Daily News
Author: Gary Borders
Note: Gary Borders is publisher of The Lufkin Daily News.


LUFKIN, Texas - The First Amendment rights of students  took another
whack last week when the U.S. Supreme  Court ruled in favor of a
high-school principal who  suspended a student for unfurling a banner
that read,  rather nonsensically, "Bong Hits 4 Jesus." The 5-4  ruling
only adds to the assault on free speech that  continues nearly
unabated in today's political climate.  It's more than a little
depressing for those of us who  still believe the 45 words that
comprise the First  Amendment are the linchpin of our liberties.

Joseph Frederick displayed his banner off campus on a  public street
at a school-sponsored outing to watch the  Winter Olympic torch pass
through Juneau, Alaska in  January 2002. The off-campus aspect is a
distinction  that the court majority ignored, focusing on the  alleged
pro-drug message. (For the uninitiated, a bong  is a water pipe
usually used for smoking marijuana.)  The majority ruled that since
Frederick supposedly was  promoting drug use, the principal had a
right to  suspend him. By that logic, if a high-school student  wrote
an essay espousing legalization of marijuana, he  or she could be
suspended as well. As dissenting  Justice John Paul Stevens wrote, the
majority ended up  "inventing out of whole cloth a special First
Amendment  rule permitting the censorship of any student speech  that
mentions drugs."

Admittedly Frederick's banner was a dumb stunt that he  hoped would
get him and his buddies on television. It  did, actually. But the
First Amendment is supposed to  protect dumb stunts involving speech,
or obnoxious  speech, unpleasant speech, and especially unpopular
speech. Speech that doesn't upset anyone hardly needs  protection, now
does it?

Rules that constrict free speech or the right to  assemble are
supposed to be content neutral, such as  those restricting where
demonstrations can be held, no  matter what's being protested. That
means if Frederick  had hoisted a banner that said, "Jesus Loves the
Winter  Olympics," the principal should have objected and taken  the
same actions she took for the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus"  banner.

I doubt that would have happened.

One reason I believe so passionately in the First  Amendment and that
it should apply to students -  especially when they are not on school
property - is  that 35 years ago I was expelled from high school by a
principal who also believed his authority to control  what I wrote or
said extended beyond the schoolhouse  doors. In 1972 I started a silly
little underground  newspaper called The Mirror. It contained no
profanity  - or references to bongs, for that matter. It was  critical
of the high-school administration for, among  other dubious acts,
banning "Catcher in the Rye" from  the library. Looking back at the
yellowed copies of  this four-page, typewritten and hand-drawn
publication,  it's painfully obvious it was produced by teenagers.

The principal took immediate exception to our modest  sheet, which we
distributed on the only corner of the  four-way stop that wasn't owned
by the school district,  at the old high school near downtown
Longview. He  called me in and gave me a good cussing, and said we
risked getting expelled if our commie publication  continued - even
though it was produced and distributed  off-campus. We kept
publishing, paying for photocopies  out of our pockets, and sure
enough, the cartoonist and  I were expelled indefinitely. Frank
already was out of  high school, or he would have been booted as well.

My parents were very supportive. I contacted the  American Civil
Liberties Union and was referred to an  attorney in Athens, who took
the case for free. We  filed a federal lawsuit and, a few days later,
U.S.  District Judge William Wayne Justice issued a temporary
restraining order putting us back in school. Both sides  agreed to tie
our case to a similar one from San  Antonio then before the Fifth
Circuit Court of Appeals.  If those students won, the district would
drop our  expulsion. If the students lost, we would pursue a
class-action suit against the district alleging it  violated student
rights to the First, Fifth and  Fourteenth Amendments.

The San Antonio students won their suit, so our case  was over; we ran
out of money and steam, and quit  publishing The Mirror after four or
five issues. I  graduated on time, though I finished the last semester
  by correspondence so I could work full-time.

A couple decades later, I sat on a panel with Judge  Justice at
Stephen F. Austin State University and told  him my story. I was able
to thank him in person for  putting me back in school and setting me
on a career  track in journalism and newspapering from which I only
rarely have wavered. William Wayne Justice is one of my  heroes.

Since then, a number of rulings have chipped away at  students' First
Amendment rights. It's apparently OK to  teach students about the Bill
of Rights, but God forbid  we should actually allow them the rights
accorded under  them.

Gary Borders is publisher of The Lufkin Daily News.
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