High court to weigh students' speech rights

December 02, 2006|By David G. Savage | David G. Savage,Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to decide whether a high school student had a free-speech right to unfurl a banner that read "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" at a school-sponsored event.

A ruling on the issue, due early next year, is expected to clarify the extent to which school officials can control slogans on banners, T-shirts and the like at school events. In recent years, disputes have arisen over messages involving religion, guns, gays and drugs on T-shirts worn by students.

In March, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled that school officials may not "punish and censor non-disruptive" speech by students at school-sponsored events simply because they object to the message. That decision cleared the way for a student to win damages from a principal in Juneau, Alaska, who had torn down the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" banner.

The student, Joseph Frederick, had unfurled the sign on the street outside the school in 2002, as the torch for that year's Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City passed by. The students were released from classes to watch the event, and Frederick apparently hoped the banner would be seen on television.

The principal, Deborah Morse, suspended Frederick for 10 days.

Frederick sued Morse, alleging that her actions violated his right to freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment. A federal judge in Alaska rejected the claim by Frederick, now a student at the University of Idaho, but he won before the 9th Circuit.

In August, former U.S. Solicitor General Kenneth W. Starr and his law firm took up the case free of charge and appealed to the Supreme Court on behalf of the principal and the Juneau school board.

In a brief filed in the case, Starr said the 9th Circuit's ruling would create "a dangerous precedent [that] is deeply alarming to school administrators across the country." The decision would open the administrators to being personally sued for prohibiting "pro-drug messages" at school events, said Starr, now the dean of the Pepperdine University Law School.

The justices said they would hear the case, Morse v. Frederick, in February.

The line between a student's right to speak freely and the school official's authority to exercise control at school events has long been hazy.

During the Vietnam War, the high court said students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." That ruling, in Tinker v. Des Moines, upheld the students' rights to wear black armbands to protest the war.

During the 1980s and '90s, the court pulled back from that pro-free speech view and stressed that school officials had broad power to control what is said or done in school. For example, the court said a student could be punished for making a speech in a school auditorium that contained a humorous and thinly veiled sexual allusion. Another ruling said a principal could censor a high school newspaper for reporting on teen pregnancies.

In the Alaska case, however, the 9th Circuit concluded that students cannot be disciplined because officials object to the message conveyed on a T-shirt or banner, particularly at an event outside the school.

David G. Savage writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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