Morse v. Frederick

551 U.S. 393 (2007)

In 2002, students at a high school in Juneau, Alaska were allowed to briefly leave class to stand on a public street across from the school and watch the Olympic Torch Relay pass through town. One student, Joseph Frederick, was suspended from school for holding up a banner that read “BONG HiTS 4 JESUS” as the Relay went by. Although Frederick argued he was off school grounds when he displayed his banner and that his nonsensical banner created no disruption, the Supreme Court upheld the school’s punishment of the speech as if it occurred on campus, finding that it was reasonable to conclude that the banner conveyed a message of promoting illegal drug use.

The Court majority, over a strong dissent and with several concurring opinions, concluded that Tinker was not intended to be the sole limitation on non-school-sponsored student speech. According to the Court, “[t]he ‘special characteristics of the school environment,’ and the governmental interest in stopping student drug abuse … allow schools to restrict student expression that they reasonably regard as promoting illegal drug use.” The Court rejected the school’s argument that under the Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser case it should be allowed to censor speech simply because school officials find it offensive or in conflict with the school’s “educational mission.” “[M]uch political and religious speech might be perceived as offensive to some,” the Court said.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Alito wrote that the Court’s decision “goes no further than to hold that a public school may restrict speech that a reasonable observer would interpret as advocating illegal drug use…. [I]t provides no support for any restriction of speech that can plausibly be interpreted as commenting on any political or social issue, including speech on issues such as ‘the wisdom of the war on drugs or of legalizing marijuana for medicinal use.'”

Read the opinion.