A case for free speech

The Supreme Court’s decision could have far-reaching effects on student speech.

As the Olympic Torch was being paraded through his town in 2002, Joseph Frederick, a high school student in Juneau, Alaska, unfurled a 14-foot long banner that read “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” in front of television crews filming the event. But instead of just getting his 15 minutes of fame, Frederick was suspended by the school principal for 10 days for refusing to take the banner down. According to the school, Frederick’s sign promoted drug use, something contrary to the school’s mission and thus, something they could punish with a suspension.

That banner was many things: immature, silly, nonsensical and probably pretty funny to the “Harold and Kumar” set. One thing it was not, however, was a legal crowbar to open the door to censorship of speech in schools, and Frederick has lined up a surprising mix of supporters that agree with him. Along with more typical advocates of free speech like the American Civil Liberties Union, a number of Christian groups have sided with Frederick, such as the Christian Legal Society and the Rev. Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice, in support of the student’s right to religious expression.

We think that the Supreme Court should abide by the logic that the Court itself prescribed in the 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines School District case involving students wearing black armbands in symbolic protest of the Vietnam War. “It can hardly be argued,” Justice Abe Fortas wrote, “that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

While Frederick’s speech might not be as noble and principled as that of those protesting a war, it’s easy to see how limiting the rather innocuous “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” could open the door to limiting any speech the school believes is contrary to their mission, regardless of its nature. Such a move would be, ahem, one toke over the line. We believe that the free exchange of ideas, so vital to the intellectual formation of students, would be best served by protecting Frederick’s speech in the highest court in the land.