The U.S. Supreme Court announced Dec. 1 that it will hear a student freedomof expression case that involves a high school student’s right to displaya banner at an off-campus event.
Joseph Frederick, then a senior atJuneau-Douglas High School, was suspended for ten days after displaying a signthat read “Bong Hits 4 Jesus,” as the 2002 Olympic torch relaypassed near his high school in Juneau, Alaska. Frederick was standing across thestreet from school grounds and attempting to draw attention from the mediaoutlets coming to the event.
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SPLCView: It was a surprise to many that the Court took this case. If one was toconclude that the Frederick’s unveiling of his self-described “meaningless andfunny” banner took place as part of a school- authorized event, as the NinthCircuit did, the appellate court’s application of the SupremeCourt’sTinker standard and its finding that Juneau school officials hadoverstepped their authority in suspending the student was strictly by the books.The appeals court properly concluded that the banner contained no unlawfulspeech and the evidence showed that while it evoked some laughs from hisclassmates, it caused nothing that could be described as a substantialdisruption, as required by Tinker. Unfortunately, Ken Starr (yes, he ofthe Whitewater Investigation fame) reads more — a lot more — intothe banner than did the student who made it. Starr painted a picture of the 9thCircuit’s decision as tolerance of a pro-drug message on campus. Apparently, hesuccessfully convinced at least four justices on the Supreme Court that hispoint was worth examining. Unfortunately, the danger that this case poses tostudent speech is significant. Frederick, who was 18-years-old at the time, wasoff school grounds, on a public sidewalk, when he unfurled his banner. In fact,the student hadn’t even been to school that day. He was, in a legal sense, aprivate citizen that we would argue should have the same free speech protectionas the 40-year-old non-students who also watched the torch pass through downtownJuneau. As such, school officials should have no legal authority to punish himfor his private, lawful, off-campus speech. If accepted, Starr’s view could giveschool officials jurisdiction over a wide-range of private, off-campus speechactivity with the only requirement being that the speaker be a student. Ifanyone was going to punish Joseph Frederick for his banner that day, it was ajob for his parents, not a government-employed high school principal. TheStudent Press Law Center will be filing a friend-of-the-court brief in the casein early 2007.
Case: Frederick v. Morse, 439 F.3d 114(2006),cert. granted, 2006 WL 2503545, No. 06-278 (Dec. 1,2006).