On Monday morning (June 25), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against an Alaska high school student suspended in 2002 for unfurling a 14-foot banner bearing the words “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” during a parade in support of the Winter Olympic Games. In its first major decision on student free-speech rights in two decades, the court determined that the student’s rights had not been violated.
According to The Associated Press, the court’s conservative majority found that Juneau, Alaska, high school principal Deborah Morse did not, in fact, violate student Joseph Frederick’s constitutional rights when she confiscated the banner and later decided to suspend him. The decision, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, means that students could face future limits on their rights to free speech, especially when said speech could be interpreted as promoting illegal drug use (see “Could ‘Bong Hits 4 Jesus’ Case Chill Free Speech In Schools?” ).
The case was argued before the Supreme Court on March 19. Frederick, who was 18 years old at the time, was suspended for 10 days after displaying the banner during the Winter Olympics Torch Relay in 2002. Morse spotted the banner, ran across the street and snatched it from Frederick’s hands. Frederick later appealed the decision to the Juneau School Board, which upheld his suspension. Frederick filed a civil-rights suit against Morse and the school board several months later, claiming they had violated his federal and state constitutional rights to free speech by imposing, and then upholding, his suspension.
Morse initially suspended Frederick for five days on the grounds that he had violated the school district’s anti-drug policy. She increased the suspension to 10 days when Frederick refused to reveal the names of students who had helped him with the banner.
But Frederick has long maintained that the banner was meant to convey a nonsensical message, one he first noticed on a snowboard. He also claims he intended to use the banner as a means of asserting his fundamental, constitutionally protected right to say anything he wanted.
Morse felt otherwise. Along with other school officials, she said the phrase “bong hits” was a direct reference to smoking marijuana, and she believed the banner advocated or promoted illegal drug use. The court sided with Morse, agreeing that those who viewed the banner would interpret it as advocating or promoting illegal drug use, AP reported. The court’s ruling might also provide principals the ability to restrict student speech during school events when the speech is reasonably viewed as promoting illegal drug use.
Frederick, who had not attended school the morning of the torch relay, was standing on a public sidewalk, across the street from the rest of his school, when he unfurled the banner. Students had been allowed to leave class to watch the torch make its way through Juneau en route to Salt Lake City.
“The message on Frederick’s banner is cryptic,” Roberts said. “But Principal Morse thought the banner would be interpreted by those viewing it as promoting illegal drug use, and that interpretation is plainly a reasonable one.”