Whose free speech?

Low point for high jinks

June 27, 2007

If the issue of student free speech were not so serious, the U.S. Supreme Court's unfortunate decision in the case of a high school senior who held up a provocative banner - for which he was suspended by school authorities - could almost be chalked up to a generational misunderstanding. But the overreaction by adult authorities in this case, from school officials to a majority of the high court, has led to a bad precedent for First Amendment rights.

Joseph Frederick, who was an 18-year-old senior in 2002, has admitted that the main reason he and some of his friends created a 14-foot banner that read "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" and displayed it as the Olympic torch came through their town of Juneau, Alaska, was to attract the attention of television cameras. Mr. Frederick and his fellow students had been excused from classes to watch the torch parade from a public sidewalk across the street from their school.

Although school officials conceded that the banner display did not interfere with classroom work or prompt complaints about drug use, Mr. Frederick was banned from campus for eight days because the principal insisted that the banner violated school policy against public expression that promotes illegal drug use. But Mr. Frederick eventually persuaded a federal appeals court to agree that his First Amendment rights had been violated and that the principal should be liable to him for damages.

While the Supreme Court did not determine whether the principal should be personally liable for damages, a majority felt that she had made the right call. Even though Mr. Frederick's banner could be considered "gibberish," noted Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for the court, the reference to drugs seemed to trump everything, especially free speech and good sense. Most of the justices who voted to overturn the appeals court ruling seemed to be swayed by the false importance of not undermining a school's efforts against illegal drug use.

Students have not traditionally been extended the same First Amendment rights as adults, but the majority's general tolerance of censorship when the subject involves drugs seems a rather extreme reaction to what was, essentially, a prank. Mr. Frederick certainly got the attention he wanted, and the Supreme Court has taught him and other students a lesson in unintended and unanticipated consequences.

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