SPLC argues for protection of off-campus student speech

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Student Press Law Center and four other free expression advocacy organizations this week filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the U.S. Supreme Court arguing that a case to be argued next month could determine when public high school officials have the right to punish students for expression they engage in outside of school.

The case, Morse v. Frederick, focuses on Juneau, Alaska, student Joseph Frederick, who was suspended for ten days from Douglas High School after he held up a banner that read “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” as the 2002 Olympic torch relay passed near his school. Frederick, who was standing across the street from the school on a public sidewalk, had not attended school that morning. In addition, the school had released students so they could watch the relay. School Principal Deborah Morse crossed the street and pulled down Frederick’s banner. He was ultimately suspended for 10 days. The school argues that the banner promoted illegal drug use contrary to the school’s educational mission.

Frederick sued the Juneau School District in 2002. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit unanimously ruled in favor of Frederick in March 2006. That court held that although it considered the speech to have occurred on campus, it was not subject to censorship or punishment under the Supreme Court’s 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District decision because the banner created no substantial disruption of school activities.

In its brief before the Supreme Court, the SPLC argues that the school’s “wide-sweeping view of school power over independent, off-campus student speech has the potential to chill all types of student expression.”

“It could be used to justify punishment of a student for attending a public rally against illegal immigration that school officials deem insensitive or for writing a letter to the editor of a community newspaper condemning gay marriage that the school decides is intolerant. A student distributing leaflets in the public park urging the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes could find himself subject to punishment as could a student who wears an athletic jersey with a beer company logo on a weekend trip to the supermarket with his parents.”

Joining the SPLC on the brief are Feminists for Free Expression, The First Amendment Project, The Freedom to Read Foundation and the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression. The brief was written and filed by University of Georgia School of Law Professor Sonja R. West and attorneys at the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine LLP.

Former Whitewater special prosecutor Kenneth Starr is representing the Juneau School District. The case is scheduled for oral argument before the Supreme Court on March 19.

Read the SPLC’s briefSupreme Court will hear ‘Bong Hits 4 Jesus’ case News Flash, 12/5/2006