Readers may recall our March 22, 2007 blog on a free-speech case involving a student who was punished for unfurling a banner that read "BONG HITS FOR JESUS."
After the conclusion of oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court, we left you with the following prediction:
While it is unclear how the Supremes will ultimately decide, it is likely that the Court will issue a very narrow ruling which addresses school speech concerning drug use and will avoid the larger question as to whether learning institutions can regulate the expression of students' broader opinions or viewpoints.
Well, folks, it looks like we called it right, again!
On behalf of the majority, Chief Justice Roberts in Frederick v. Morse wrote "that schools may take steps to safeguard those entrusted to their care from speech that can reasonably be regarded as encouraging illegal drug use." While students "don't shed their rights at the schoolhouse gate ... the nature of those rights is what is appropriate for children in school."
Joined by Justice Kennedy, Justice Alito wrote a concurring opinion limiting the opinion's application to school-related speech which advocated drug use. While educational institutions may restrict speech advocating drugs in order to protect students, "such regulation [stands] at the far reaches of the First Amendment," and does not extend to general political or religious statements.
Three justices, led by Justice Stevens, disagreed with the majority's interpretation of the bong head's message. While it may be permissible to regulate speech advocating dangerous behavior, the banner (according to the dissent) was meaningless and was merely a ploy to get on television. Students are too smart, the dissenters argued, to be persuaded to use drugs based solely on such a cryptic message. Since the sign was not going to alter behavior, the dissenters were of the belief that the school officials could not inhibit expression under the guise of protecting students.
Ironically, after reading all sixty pages of the count's analysis, you might just need to hit the bong!
For a copy of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision, please use this link: Frederick v. Morse