June 25, 2007
“Bong Hits 4 Jesus” Loses Supreme Court Appeal
by Pamela Mortimer
An appeal regarding a student’s right to display a “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” banner was ruled against in Supreme Court today.
The Supreme Court announced today that the case <i>Morse and the Juneau School Board et al. v. Frederick</i> was not a violation of a student’s right to free speech.
Joseph Frederick was 18 when he was disciplined for hanging a banner advertising “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” on a public sidewalk outside his Juneau, Alaska high school in 2002. Principal Deborah Morse ordered Frederick to take down the sign and he steadfastly refused. Then Morse confiscated it and gave Frederick ten days suspension for violation of the school’s policy on promoting illegal drug use. Arguing that his First Amendment rights were violated, Frederick sued, taking his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Frederick maintains that Principal Morse had no right to remove the banner since he was on a public sidewalk at the time. The opposition argued that the incident was still a violation since Frederick was involved in a school activity at the time – watching the Olympic torch as it passed by on its way to the Salt Lake City, Utah Winter Games. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco sided with Frederick, stating that the school could not prove that Frederick had violated the “school’s educational mission”.
The issue at the core of the case was whether or not schools should be allowed to limit messages that violate school policy. The appeal filed with the Supreme Court justices noted that <i>Bong</i> "is a slang term for drug paraphernalia."
The case was appealed in the U.S. Supreme Court, with famed prosecutor Kenneth Starr at the helm. Morse and the Juneau School Board prevailed in a 6-3 ruling, stating that Frederick’s rights were not violated over what the majority’s opinion called a "sophomoric" banner.
Part of the argument included the Supreme Court's famous 1969 "Tinker" case, which permitted two Iowa high students to continue wearing anti-Vietnam War armbands.
However, the Justices had previously ruled against students' ability to make sexually suggestive remarks, favoring a school's right to restrict matter published in student newspapers.
The Supreme Court was obviously torn.
"It was reasonable for (the principal) to conclude that the banner promoted illegal drug use and that failing to act would send a powerful message to the students in her charge," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote on behalf of the Court majority.
Justice John Paul Stevens opposed the opinion. "This case began with a silly nonsensical banner, (and) ends with the court inventing out of whole cloth a special First Amendment rule permitting the censorship of any student speech that mentions drugs, so long as someone could perceive that speech to contain a latent pro-drug message."
How does Frederick feel about the ruling? Frederick, now 24, told reporters that the whole incident was nothing but a prank – a deliberate attempt to provoke Principal Morse. Frederick, who currently teaches English to students in China, stated that while the display of the banner was a misinterpreted joke, his First Amendment rights certainly are not. He stands by his right to free speech.
"I find it absurdly funny," he said. "I was not promoting drugs. …I assumed most people would take it as a joke."