Pubdate: Wed, 11 Jul 2007
Source: Times Herald, The (MI)
Copyright: 2007 The Times Herald
Author: Charles C. Haynes
Note: Charles C. Haynes is a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center.
Bookmark: (Marijuana)
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)
Bookmark: (Students - United States)
Bookmark: (Bong Hits 4 Jesus)


The phrase "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" doesn't have a hidden meaning. In fact,
it doesn't mean anything at all. When high school senior Joe Frederick
held up a banner with those now-famous words in 2002, though, he
triggered a chain of events that led to the 5-4 Supreme Court ruling
drawing new lines around student free-expression rights in public schools.

Frederick unfurled his "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" message while students and
faculty were gathered to watch the Olympic torch pass by his school in
Juneau, Alaska.

"The phrase was not important," he recently explained. "I wasn't
trying to say anything about religion. I wasn't trying to say anything
about drugs. I was just trying to say something. I wanted to use my
right to free speech, and I did it."

When the principal, Deborah Morse, asked him to take the banner down,
Frederick refused. She confiscated it and later suspended him for 10
days. Frederick sued. What Frederick believed was a nonsensical joke
that he had a First Amendment right to display, Morse saw as promotion
of illegal drugs in violation of school policy. On June 25, a closely
divided Supreme Court sided with the principal.

The court's decision in Morse v. Frederickcarves out what might be
called "an illegal drug use" exception to student free-speech rights
as defined in the 1969 case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community
School District. School officials may now censor student speech a
"reasonable observer" would interpret as advocating illegal drug use.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Samuel Alito takes great pains to
underscore the narrow scope of the decision. He claims nothing in the
ruling restricts the right of students to comment on political or
social issues, including debates about drug laws.

But the dissent, written by Justice John Paul Stevens and joined by
Justices David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, describes the decision
as a "ham-handed, categorical approach" that is "deaf to the
constitutional imperative to permit unfettered debate, even among high
school students, about the wisdom of the war on drugs or of legalizing
marijuana for medicinal use."

Narrow or sweeping? We won't know until we see how school districts
apply the decision and how courts interpret it. Don't be surprised,
however, when many school officials and judges use it to find new
grounds for censoring students. If an absurd reference to drug
paraphernalia can be suppressed, what's the stopping point?

 From the conflicting accounts, I don't know what actually happened at
Frederick's high school. I do know that far too many schools
mistakenly assume the best way to maintain discipline is to control
student expression. Draconian speech codes and censored school
publications may create the appearance of order, but they breed
alienation, distrust and rebellion.

It may seem counterintuitive, but students are far more likely to
behave well in schools that take free speech seriously. Schools where
students are given meaningful opportunities to express themselves -
and to participate in decision-making about school rules - are schools
where high school rebels like Joe Frederick have little or nothing to
rebel against.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard Lake