Monday, March 19, 2007

Free Speech? "Bong Hits 4 Jesus"

Below is a highlights from an article concerning the issue of a public school student's freedome of speech and the right of the school to maintain control.

The Supreme Court examines Monday a case raising questions over free speech rights in US high schools as it hears arguments over a student's unfurling of a quirky banner proclaiming "Bong Hits 4 Jesus."

Joseph Frederick drew the ire of his school principal in Juneau, Alaska, on January 24, 2002, when the then 18-year-old student unveiled the huge banner in front of television cameras as the Olympic flame passed in front of a crowd.

Principal Deborah Morse, whose school had authorized the students to leave class for the event, was not amused by Frederick's linkage between Jesus and a bong, a pipe used to smoke marijuana. Morse crossed the street, destroyed the banner and suspended Frederick from school for 10 days.

Frederick, now 23, said he had conducted "a free speech experiment." The banner is "absurdly funny. It doesn't make any sense at all," he said in a telephone news conference from China where he studies and teaches.

On Monday, his experiment goes before the US Supreme Court, which will hear debate over a student's right to free speech versus the school's power to impose order.

The case has drawn heavy hitters, including the powerful American Civil Liberties Union, which backed Frederick from the beginning. Morse is represented by Kenneth Starr, the former special prosecutor who led the investigation of Bill Clinton and his relationship with a White House intern, which almost cost the then US president his job.

The US government will also side with the school. Frederick took his case to federal court, arguing that his free speech right, protected under the First Amendment, had been violated and demanding damages from Morse.

He lost the first round when a trial judge ruled for Morse, saying she did not violate the student's rights, and even if she had, cannot be held personally responsible for her decisions as an educator.

That judgment was overturned on appeal, based on a 1969 Supreme Court decision in favor of students who wore black armbands protesting the Vietnam war, an act the court said did not interfere with the school's mission.

Morse appealed to the Supreme Court, and Starr will argue for her that school officials need to be able to impose discipline, which has the approval of the National School Board Association.

The US government lawyer, Solicitor General Paul Clement, will argue that the banner's reference to a bong amounts to urging drug use, and high schools must be able to quash that sort of talk.

Surprisingly, religious group have taken Frederick's side, putting President George W. Bush's support base at odds with the administration.

The American Center for Law and Justice, which specializes in constitutional law and is dedicated to defending freedom of religion and speech, submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in favor of the student.

If schools could have banned advocacy of illegal acts during the 1960s Civil Rights movement, "students who urged their black friends not to move to the back of the bus" could have been kicked out of school, the brief said.

"In the abortion context, there would be no First Amendment protection for pro-life students who urged their classmates or others to 'sit in' at abortion facilities," the brief said. Students plan to demonstrate Monday outside the Supreme Court in
Washington. "What the banner said was 'look here, I have the right to free speech
and I'm asserting it,'" Frederick said.

"I wasn't trying to say anything about religion, I wasn't trying to say anything about drugs," he said. "The phrase was not important." It is to some: T-shirts with the slogan "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" are selling like hot cakes on the Internet.


As an educator, I can see the point of the administrator. Schools must be able to maintain control and a level of civility in their schools.

The courts have held in many cases that the school has the right and responsibility to maintain control and have wide leeway in maintaining control.

The question that I raise is whether the students were on a school function or not. I read that they were released from school to attend the Olympic Torch Run but did not read anything as to whether they were under school control at this event.

If they were at an event that was a school, then the principal had the right to do wherever she felt was necessary. If they were not under direct school control, I feel the school had no authority to take action.

From a personal side, I feel the student was being a jerk and probably was trying to see what he could get away with. Educators have always had students who acted like he did.

I don’t blame the principal for taking action. Now we will see if the Supreme Court will agree.

2 comments:

Angela of ARTFS said...

Of course I don't really care for the phrase "bong hits for Jesus" and I folks don't blow this thing WAY out of proportion.

From what I read on that article that you posted it doesn't seem as though the kids were on school grounds and even if they were the boy probably would have been in trouble more for his attitude than for having a sign that says "bong hits for Jesus."

We may not like what his sign had to say but the question I ask is does the student have a right to express himself. How far can students take their language these days?

I wrote a post just the other day over on my oh baby baby blog that starts out with the "n" word. My husband made it clear to me how I was using the word wasn't appropriate it.. so after I asked him about his experience with ding dong dash he explained that is what they called it when they were kids. I have never known "n" nocking to be referred to as ding dong dash, have you?

Ok, I'm probably confusing you now... lol here's the link to my Oh Baby Baby blog in this comment. You can check it out for yourself and let me know what you think.

Great post by the way. I really like your blog and I'm glad we are doing a link exchange.

Texas Truth said...

I agree that this is being blown way out of proportion.

Students should be allowed to express themselevs, but I think this guy was just being a jerk.

I have worked as an administrator, and if I had been confronted with such a situation, I would have tried to defuse it and handle it in a bit different way.

I say that now with 30 + years of exerience in education. My decision and the way I would have handled it may have been different years ago.

With all the other things that are going on in the world, perhaps everybody involved should use their time and efforts to solve more important issues.