WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Supreme Court decided Friday that it will hear a student freedom of expression case that involves a high school student’s right to display a banner at an off-campus event.
Joseph Frederick, then a senior at Juneau-Douglas High School, was suspended for ten days after displaying a sign that read “Bong Hits 4 Jesus,” as the 2002 Olympic torch relay passed near his high school in Juneau, Alaska. Students had been released from school so they could watch the relay. Frederick was standing across the street from school grounds and attempting to draw attention from the media outlets coming to the event.
School Principal Deborah Morse crossed the street and pulled down Frederick’s banner. Morse also suspended Frederick for five days, but after Frederick said he quoted Thomas Jefferson in protest, Morse increased his suspension to 10 days.
The school argued the banner promoted illegal drug use as justification for the discipline. Frederick sued the Juneau School District in 2002.
A federal district court ruled that the banner was offensive according to the 1986 Supreme Court case Bethel School District v. Fraser and the school had the right to discipline the student. Frederick appealed to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed the lower court’s ruling because it said the Fraser precedent was only applicable to sexual discussion. The court also ruled that the banner was not subject to the 1988 decision Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which provided administrators with more leeway to censor school-sponsored publications, because the banner was not school-sponsored and took place outside of the classroom.
The appeals court made its ruling based on the 1969 decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which established that administrators could not censor student expression that does not cause a substantial disruption to the school’s educational mission.
Former Whitewater special prosecutor Kenneth Starr took on the Juneau School District’s case for free this summer and filed the petition for review with the Supreme Court.
In an expedited schedule, the court is giving each party only 78 days, instead of the usual 118 days, to file and reply to briefs.