Supreme Court rules in 'Bong Hits 4 Jesus' case

The Supreme Court ruled June 25 in the”Bong Hits 4 Jesus” case that schools do not violate astudent’s First Amendment free-speech rights by punishing speech thatappears to promote drugs at a school-sanctioned event.

The Court reversed a Ninth U.S. Circuit Court ofAppeals decision and ruled that Joseph Frederick, a former student atJuneau-Douglas High School, was not protected by the First Amendment when heheld up a banner with the words “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” across thestreet from his school during a 2002 Olympic Torch Relay though downtown Juneau,Alaska.

Read the full story at: This ruling had some good and some bad in it.

In the bad column: The Court appears to have expandedthe category of what constitutes student speech over which school officials canexercise greater control. The 18-year-old student here was off-campus, standingon a public sidewalk across from the school to watch the private,corporate-sponsored torch relay. But the Court ruled that was close enough tocampus and the school’s act of releasing students from class to watch therelay was sufficient to give them a legal stake in overseeing — and in thiscase, punishing — student speech. The Court also made clear that it was goingto give school officials substantial leeway in determining what constitutesspeech that promotes illegal drug use. The student had argued — and many of hisclassmates who saw the banner agreed — that the message “Bong Hits 4Jesus” was nonsensical gibberish that advocated nothing. The Court,however, ruled that it was reasonable for the principal to assume that themessage promoted drugs and take the action she did to censor and punish for it.Finally on the bad side is Justice Thomas’ concurring opinion in which –for the first time ever — a Justice of the Supreme Court suggested simplygetting rid of the 1969 landmark student speech case, Tinker v. DesMoines, which held that students are protected by the First Amendment whileat school. Fortunately, Thomas appears to be by himself with that argument fornow.

On the positive side was Justice Alito’s pivotalconcurring opinion in which he stated: “[This decision] provides no support forany restriction of speech that can plausibly be interpreted as commenting on anypolitical or social issue….” In other words, “school-sanctioned” and”school-supervised” student speech that includes a political or social componentcannot be censored by school officials absent some other legally justifiedreason (for example, the speech is libelous or obscene.) Indeed, had Frederickheld up a banner (or presumably passed out flyers or an independent newspaper,created a private Web site or worn a T-shirt) that simply said “LegalizeMarijuana” rather than the twaddle he chose, the First Amendment would haveprotected him and, under this Court’s reasoning, he would have won hiscase.

Such a clear pronouncement from the United StatesSupreme Court recognizing the importance of protecting the right of students tofreely discuss issues of political and/or social significance has been all toorare as of late, and Justice Alito’s words appear to put student First Amendmentrights on firmer footing than that provided by some recent lower court rulings.Of course, we’ll have to wait and see.

Case: Morse v. Frederick, 127 S.Ct. 2618(2007)