He’s back – and more annoyed than ever. This time, though, it’s not a president having issues keeping his pants on that is troubling Kenneth W. Starr. Instead, it’s a mischievous Alaskan high school prank that has garnered national attention, incrementally making its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Back in 2002, Juneau-Douglas High School student Joseph Frederick was allowed to leave school grounds, along with other students, in order to watch the Olympic torch pass by. In an effort to attract attention and get on television, Frederick and his fellow schoolmates unfurled a 14-foot-long banner displaying the words, “Bong Hits 4 Jesus.” Having waited for the opportune moment when cameras began to roll, Frederick and his now infamous banner made a splash, tsunami-style.
As punishment for the lewd message on his banner, the principal confiscated it and suspended Frederick for 10 days. Frederick maintains that his principal’s actions were in direct violation of his rights under the First Amendment. The principal and the school board, however, contend that the punishment was justified on the grounds that the banner’s message undermined school teachings on the dangers of drugs.
On the surface, this case seems like a bad joke, but the final verdict could have serious implications for the future of students’ freedom of speech rights.
As a student, I exercise my First Amendment right on a regular basis. Whether it’s in an op-ed arguing that the Iraq War is morally reprehensible or in class debating about what constitutes a public good, the thought never escapes me that I have to be cautious about what I say or write on pain of incurring punishment. I would like to keep things this way, which is why I hope the Supreme Court will rule in favor of Frederick.
There are several considerations that the court should keep in mind when reviewing this case.
First, as was astutely cited by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, the 1969 case of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community sets a strong precedent for the case at hand. Under Tinker, student speech is protected unless it is deemed to unduly disrupt school activities.
As far as I can tell, Frederick’s banner does not breach the unduly disruptive caveat. For starters, watching an Olympic torch procession off of school grounds does not constitute a school-related activity. Moreover, while the banner might have embarrassed school administrators, it did not inflame passions or unleash a riot. A New York Times editorial on the Frederick case encourages the Supreme Court to “use this case to reaffirm Tinker’s famous pronouncement that students do not shed their right to free speech ‘at the schoolhouse gate.'”
Second of all, it is instructive to note that religious groups have joined civil libertarians in endorsing Frederick. At first, this may seem peculiar considering the message on Frederick’s banner could easily be taken as offensive to religious followers. However, as was made perfectly clear by the New York Times editorial, “If schools can limit speech on any subject deemed to be important, students could soon be punished for talking about the war on terror or the war in Iraq because the government also considers those subjects important. Some school administrators would no doubt use their power to clamp down on conservative speech while others clamp down on liberal speech.”
Lastly, one should remember the following: kids will be kids. Frederick’s banner is your typical high school prank. It lacks bite, it’s utterly harmless. High school students do worse things on a daily basis, yet this benign banner incident managed to attract national attention and spark debate.
In this country, we have a very special gift. We can offend and be offended in return. Let’s protect that gift.
Luci Storelli-Castro is a senior political science and philosophy major. Her column runs every Thursday in the Collegian. Replies and feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.