A case before the Supreme Court has sparked an intriguing argument regarding public schools, free speech and student rights.
In 2002, a high-school senior unfurled a 14-foot banner that read “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” across the street from the Juneau, Alaska, high school. The principal considered it a pro-drug message and suspended the teen.
The former student’s lawyer, however, is arguing that Joseph Frederick was conducting a free-speech experiment using a nonsensical message that was not meant to condone drug use.
It is up to the justices to determine the truth and make a decision that could affect students nationwide for years to come.
Frederick’s attorney contends the case is entirely about free speech, not illegal drug use.
The former principal’s attorney — who happens to be former independent counsel Kenneth Starr — said Deborah Morse made a reasonable interpretation when she read the banner.
It’s difficult to argue against either point.
Students attending public schools don’t have the same rights as adults, but they do not lose all constitutional protections once on school property.
In this case, the student’s argument is suspect because he acknowledges he unfurled the banner just as television cameras, there to watch the Olympic torch pass through the city, focused on the site. He admitted he was trying to provoke a reaction from school administrators, with whom he had feuded.
It sounds like a childish prank, but Frederick’s immature actions sparked a serious debate regarding students’ free-speech rights and school officials’ ability to enforce rules.
This is a fascinating case for the Supreme Court, and students and adults should watch it closely.