By Andrew Hendricks
First Amendment advocacy groups and students shared outrage seven years ago over Morse V Frederick, the Supreme Court ruling in favor of a high school principal who suspended a student for his “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” banner.
The battle between Joseph Frederick, then 18, and the principal of Juneau-Douglas High School in Juneau, Alaska, ignited in 2002 during a school field trip to see the Olympic torch pass through their small town.
As television cameras panned, Frederick and his friend unfurled a 15-foot banner with duct-taped letters reading “Bong Hits 4 Jesus.”
The principal, Deborah Morse, quickly rushed to confiscate the banner. She suspended Frederick for five days. This punishment later turned into 10 days after Frederick refused to name the friends who assisted him.
Frederick said that the punishment also came when he quoted Thomas Jefferson about freedom of speech and Morse became annoyed. And for many, that’s what this issue has turned into.
Frederick claimed it was his Constitutional right to express this message. He fought Morse’s ruling and the subsequent school board ruling that backed her. The debate raged all the way to the Supreme Court, where the ruling went against Frederick.
The Court’s 6-3 vote caused an outpouring of criticism that claimed this decision infringed on students’ freedom of speech.
“The First Amendment requires a greater amount of care than the court gave today,” said David Greene, Executive Director of The First Amendment Project, a free speech advocacy group.
Other freedom of speech organizations were more concerned with the general direction in which the courts seemed to be heading, as opposed to just this one case.
“It used to be if there’s some doubt of freedom of speech, the mentality was to give speech the benefit of the doubt,” said Terry Francke, General Counsel for Californians Aware, another freedom of speech advocacy organization. “But the courts say even though the message is cryptic, they had enough justification because of a reference to marijuana.”
High school administrators greeted the ruling happily, and were grateful for the Supreme Court’s continued backing of principals staying in control of their schools.
“The Supreme Court has routinely ruled that we may make these kind judgment calls,” said James Bushman, Principal of University High on the Fresno State campus.
Students gained their first real taste of political freedom of speech in 1969. In the case of Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the Court ruled that students may wear black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. Bushman said that since the 1969 ruling however, there’s always been a history of rulings in favor of high school administrators.
“To me, it’s just one more ruling,” said Bushman.
Bushman also did not feel the “Bong hits 4 Jesus” banner made a strong First Amendment argument because of the student’s purpose.
“It’s not like it was a T-shirt,” Bushman said. “It was a 14-foot banner designed to be inflammatory. He even said he did it to bother his principal.
Even one of Frederick’s relatives sided with the school administration to some extent.
In an e-mail to The Signature, Frederick’s cousin, Patti Steele-Jorgensen, said: “I’m proud that my cousin took a stand for his rights, but I don’t disagree with the ruling. There are certain things that have no place in the schools. And promoting illegal activity is one of those things.”
Many students disagreed, siding with First Amendment advocacy groups.
“I think it’s kind of sad,” said Leonard Torres, 17, Associate Editor of Highlights, the Sanger High School paper. “It’s really damaging to freedom in schools. Administrators have too much power to censor students and this ruling only gives them more.”
The fact that a drug reference in the banner specifically bothered the administration does little to diminish the anger students feel over the debate.
“It shouldn’t matter that the banner references an illegal substance. He should still be protected by freedom of speech,” said Alex Kent, 18, a journalism student at Lincoln High School, Stockton.
While the message the Supreme Court ruling sends certainly upset First Amendment organizations, advocates with legal knowledge aren’t too worried specifically for California students.
“On the other hand, this ruling is no real threat to Californians because of the Student Bill of Rights California has,” said Francke of California Aware.
The Supreme Court ruling does not permit high school administrators to punish students whose speech mentions illegal activity. The court only said the Constitution does not specifically forbid it.
California does forbid it.
California’s Student Bill of Rights states that administrators may not restrict students’ speech, even if illegal activity is mentioned, provided it does not overtly incite violence of uncontrollable disruption.
When asked if the ruling could affect California high school administrator’s perception of their limits, Francke said:
“The only thing it might change is the actions of [administrators] who are ignorant of the law. They have no more authority over free speech in California based on this ruling.”
A careful read of California’s Constitution may give high school students a sigh of relief.
Not so elsewhere.
“Students from other states without such state-level protection are left vulnerable when it comes to free speech,” said Francke.
Some students, including high school journalism student Kent, feel more angered at what they view as hypocrisy by high school administrations.
“It’s ridiculous that the place we’re learning about freedom of speech is the place we’re not encouraged to practice it,” Kent said.