In the now-infamous "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" case – Morse v. Frederick – the Supreme Court ruled this week that school principal Deborah Morse did not violate Joseph Frederick’s First Amendment rights. Below, we’ve collected commentary on how this landmark case (the first time the Court has weighed students’ free speech rights in over 20 years) could affect free speech in the future.
Background: In January 2002, as the Olympic torch relay passed through Juneau, Alaska, Joseph Frederick and some of his friends stood on a public street with a banner that read “Bong Hits 4 Jesus.” Students had been let out of school to watch the parade. Frederick and his friends were standing off school grounds along the parade route when the principal, Deborah Morse, crossed the street and demanded that they take down the sign. Frederick refused, asserting his free speech rights. He was suspended on the ground that the banner violated the school’s anti-drug policies.
In an amicus brief submitted to the Supreme Court, NCAC – along with the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression – urged the Court to apply full First Amendment protection to speech made by students occurring off school grounds and not connected to a school event.
While Frederick said the message of his banner was a joke intended to grab the attention of passing TV cameras, there’s nothing funny about the potentially far-reaching implications of the Court’s decision in this case. Fortunately, the Court did not accept the argument advanced by the government that school officials may censor students like Frederick when they deem student speech to contradict the school’s “educational mission.” The Court did, however, create a new exception to Tinker by permitting schools to censor speech that they think advocates illegal drug use.
Frederick denies that his “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” banner was intended to promote drug use. In his view, he was making a statement about free speech itself. In our view, students not only do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” as the Court held in Tinker v. Des Moines (1969). Students also do not, simply because they’re students, surrender their constitutional rights as citizens to speak freely in public places.