March 21, 2007

Students outside the U.S. Supreme Court during Morse v. Frederick arguments. (The Associated Press)

'Bong Hits 4 Jesus' Case Puts Focus on Student Rights

After Juneau, Alaska, high school principal Deborah Morse suspended student Joseph Frederick in 2002 for displaying a banner bearing the words "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" across the street from his school, Frederick claimed he quoted Thomas Jefferson on free speech. Morse promptly doubled the suspension.

More than four years later, Morse v. Frederick was heard this week by the U.S. Supreme Court in the first major student–speech case in 20 years. What began as a 10–day suspension for a youthful prank is likely to provide administrators and students nationwide with an updated set of guidelines on what students can say and do inside –and perhaps outside – their public schools in the 21st century.

Frederick unfurled his banner, which he says displayed nonsense words, on a public sidewalk across from school property. Morse viewed it as a pro-drug message. Some legal experts warn that a victory for the school system would empower educators to reach far from school grounds, perhaps even into cyberspace, to regulate student speech or activities they find offensive.

In 1969, in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the court said student speech is protected unless school officials can reasonably forecast that it will disrupt the educational process or invade the rights of other students. The students in the Tinker case had worn black armbands to school to protest deaths in the Vietnam War. Students such as Mary Beth Tinker, the court held, "do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech and expression at the schoolhouse gate."

When Frederick sued Morse for damages, he claimed that the Tinker standards are so well–known that the principal personally should be responsible for violating his constitutional rights and not shielded with qualified immunity as a public official.

Morse's supporters argue that if Morse is found liable, the decision would handcuff superintendents and principals faced with myriad policy decisions daily and hinder their ability to respond in emergencies.

And, as Justice Samuel Alito noted during oral arguments, Morse v. Frederick also may affect yet another contentious issue for educators – the extent to which students may express their religious views in public schools.

This dispute is just one instance where student speech and school controls collide. Current controversies revolve around T-shirt messages critical of President Bush, Web postings that attack teachers and student newspaper editorials discussing gay rights.

Those issues, including an armband from the Tinker case, will be on display in the First Amendment gallery when the Newseum opens in the fall.

Read more about this story and other First Amendment news at our sister site

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