- LA Youth - http://www.layouth.com -

Supreme Court limits student free speech

In 2002, students at schools in Juneau, Alaska were let out of school to watch the Olympic torch be carried through town on its way to Salt Lake City. As cameras went by, high school senior Joseph Frederick stood across the street from his school and unfurled a 14-foot long sign that read "Bong Hits 4 Jesus." His principal Deborah Morse suspended him for 10 days when he refused to take down the banner. Although he was not on school grounds, she said it was a school-sponsored event and she therefore had a right to prevent him from expressing a view that went against the school’s anti-drug policies. Frederick sued, saying his free-speech rights were violated. The case was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, which heard arguments in March.
    On June 25, the Supreme Court ruled that the principal was within her rights to suspend the student for disobeying her order to take down the sign. The court said that because her decision was about a banner bearing a drug-related message, she was not censoring his First Amendment guarantees to freedom of speech.

L.A. Youth asked its writers to share their thoughts about the Supreme Court’s decision. (most recent posts first)

We also invite you to vote in our poll asking whether school administrators should be allowed to censor the school newspaper.

The most ridiculous thing about the case is the fact that “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” doesn’t even make sense. It’s a statement that means nothing, and I don’t see how it promotes drug use. Maybe “Jesus should do some weed” would be promoting drug use, but not this.
    The worst part is that the teacher said that if the poster had said something that was a serious statement, she would support it—but that’s selective free speech. That’s the same thing as saying, “I support your statement, but only if you say it a certain way, or the way I like it.” That’s like Stalinist Russia. You can’t do that. Any sort of limitation on what people can and cannot say is a violation of the First Amendent. And as bad as the things are that people say with their free speech, limiting those bad things is even worse because it breeds fear.
    Also, the teacher cannot say that she has control over the student because he was not on campus. Not only that, but he wasn’t signed into school that day, which means that he wasn’t participating in a school-sponsored event. The teacher claims that he was representing the school, but the truth is that he was ditching, and although that is not good, it means that he wasn’t under the control of the school that day. It really disturbs me that no one brought that up, because it’s a pretty important fact. She can’t claim that he was part of this “school-sponsored activity” if he was not actually in school that day.
    But what really bothers me is this: If kids can’t say certain things outside of school, how will they continue to say things in their school newspapers or start certain school clubs? One thing leads to the next, and it scares me that teachers are taking control of students’ lives outside of school. That’s not their job. They’re hired to teach people and make them good humans and everything, but they shouldn’t feel that they have enough power to limit what a student does at an activity that they themselves have no control over.
—Genevieve Geoghan, 17, Marlborough School Posted, Thursday, July 5

The legality of promoting marijuana when on a type of field trip is not a question of free speech, especially when it is publicized on international TV.
    I am a firm believer in our First Amendment, more passionately after our own President sabotaged this sacred human right by authorizing the government to tap citizens’ phones several years ago. However, it’s old news that society has established limits on the First Amendment. Just as you can’t shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater, you can’t say certain things while in school. As my teachers love to remind me, school is not a democracy. And, during school hours, students must adhere to certain laws, or suffer consequences. This expectation for conformity naturally applied to Joseph Frederick, a high school student.
    Frankly, it doesn’t matter if I, or anyone else, think that the notion of displaying a banner reading “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” came from a very senseless corner of Frederick’s mind. What matters to society is that he chose to put his message forth to the world while at a school-sponsored event.
    My advice is this: Students who sign an agreement to their school’s code of conduct may save lots of (their parent’s) money by simply referring to that agreement before taking their school to court over their punishment from disobeying those rules. Obviously, the promotion of marijuana use would be forbidden, and students are considered students even when off campus on an outing with the school.
    Understandably, I think the Supreme Court’s ruling was just. As much as the idea of no rules in high school excites me, it is not something that I want long-term. Moreover, it can’t be gained by suing a school and simultaneously overlooking something as black-and-white as a code of conduct.
    While some may say that the school’s power over Frederick’s ability to display his banner conflicts with the Bill of Rights, I say that it does not! (Especially when one is in certain structured groups, such as in a working or school environment. Or when one signs a legal document and then totally forgets that he did so.)
—Sylvana Insua-Rieger, 16, Beverly Hills HS Posted, Wednesday, June 27

I was not very surprised by the “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” incident, which happened during a school field trip to see the Olympic torch relay. The Court has a history of denying students the Constitutional right to free speech, and it was expected that judges would uphold precedent before thinking about what they were doing to student rights. Past court cases like Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier allow schools to censor student ideas deemed “inappropriate,” but it is even more disturbing that so many forget about the duty to change precedent if it is faulty. The principal’s initial reaction was to tear down the banner, thus committing an act of censorship. It is ridiculous that the First Amendment does not apply to students on school grounds or school events in the same way as it would in public space.
—Mindy Gee, 17, Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies Posted Tuesday, June 26

To be honest, when I first heard about Morse v. Frederick, I pictured the plaintiff as a teenage pothead who wanted nothing more than his 15 minutes of fame. After a bit of research, and with the knowledge that Joseph Frederick pleaded guilty to selling marijuana in college, I wouldn’t necessarily disagree.
    But some more reading from the Student Press Law Center convinced me that Frederick’s motivation was not only to be on television, but also to promote freedom of speech (although I would agree with his principal that the phrase "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" promotes marijuana use, as well). His 10-day school suspension was in part because he refused to give the names of other participants and quoted Thomas Jefferson, saying "Speech limited is speech lost." Admirable. But there’s brave, and then there’s stupid.
    In this case, I believe that the principal made a judgment call in deciding that the poster promoted drug use and confiscating it. It was the right decision. After all, it wasn’t as if she saw Joseph Frederick walking down the street on a random Saturday—it was a school-sponsored event and no matter what your views on marijuana may be, the poster was obviously inappropriate. If someone brought a poster that said "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" to prom, a school-sponsored event, that person would likely be asked to leave. With a poster like that, Frederick’s denial that he was promoting drug use is a little hard to believe.
    I think I could have supported him more if he had been protesting something else, or perhaps just not advocating illegal activity. I almost wonder if the poster was even really about free speech, or if it was just an excuse for the attempt to attract the cameras. My opinion may seem unusual, especially because the New York Times headline reads "Supreme Court Limits Students’ Speech Rights" (Yeah, not biased at all.) But what I found particularly important is that the 5-4 ruling is rather narrow. Narrow in that it "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 have to say, I don’t at all feel like my rights are being threatened because I can’t promote smoking pot at a school event.
—Angela Wu, 16, Walnut HS
Posted Tuesday, June 26

This case is particularly frightening for teens because it could apply, not only to banners broadcast on television, but perhaps also to the Internet. We have already heard of cases of teens getting in trouble for MySpace or Facebook posts, and now the Man has a Supreme Court case to back it up. Hypothetically, we can now get in trouble at school for anything we say or write outside of school.  This is a subtle attack on the free speech rights of students everywhere.
    And how long until this precedent applies to adults at their workplaces?
—Katie Havard, 17, Beverly Hills HS
Posted Tuesday, June 26

I don’t believe this was just an issue of free speech. I believe in free speech and that we all have our right to say what we wish but there is a limit to everything. This was an issue of promoting drug use to an international audience. I believe it not only defames the school but also the nation as a whole, especially since this is a nation in which narcotics are illegal. As much as Fredrick says he was only expressing his free speech rights the message of "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" is clear. Promoting marijuana at a school-sponsored event is breaking the rules of an anti-drug society and classroom environment by implying that drug use is for everyone and saying you can do illegal things and it won’t matter. This is the message it portrays to me. I believe he should have at least taken it down in front of international television because if it was a joke, there was no free speech message in it. It was a joke that advocated drug use. I don’t agree with placing more limits on free speech, but I do agree that if it breaks school code and clearly makes a statement of drug use, even as a joke, it is abusing your first amendment right.
—Victorino Martinez, 18, Daniel Murphy Catholic HS
Posted Tuesday, June 26