The U.S. Supreme Court finally administered their opinion on the so-called “Bong Hits 4 Jesus”(legally known as Morse vs.
The student, Joseph Frederick, along with some friends, had unfurled the banner across the street from his high school in
Frederick appealed the decision to the school superintendent, which stood by Principal Morse’s decision because of the assumption that the phrase “bong hits” meant marijuana and Frederick “was unwilling or unable” to express any other credible meaning to the phrase. Since, in their opinion, the banner only advocated the use of illegal drugs, and was not politically motivated (as to promote simply the legalization of marijuana), it was considered disruptive to the event.
However, the Ninth Circuit Court reversed the District decision, claiming that the “school punished
So the Supreme Court was held to two questions: whether or not
The Court admits that the message on the banner was cryptic.
Justice Breyer, who concurred in part and dissented in part, concluded that “This Court need not and should not decide this difficult First Amendment issue on the merits. Rather, I believe that it should simply hold that qualified immunity bars the student’s claim for monetary damages and say no more.” He sees some concern in the ability of a school to restrict certain speech, including pro-drug speech, and when. He brings up the question of a student telling another student at lunch that a glaucoma patient should smoke marijuana, about deprecating commentary of an anti-drug film shown at school, and what if the banner had read “legalize bong hits” instead? “All of this is to say that, regardless of the outcome of the constitutional determination, a decision on the underlying First Amendment issue is both difficult and unusually portentous. And that is a reason for us not to decide the issue unless we must.”
The dissenting opinions, shared by Stevens, Souter, and Ginsberg, speak to the motives of the student and principal. While the dissent agrees that the principal should not be held liable for pulling down the banner, the question is “may the school suppress student speech that was never intended to convince anyone to do anything?”
The dissent holds that the “nonsense banner” neither violates a permissible rule nor expressly advocates conduct that is illegal and harmful to students. By upholding the school’s decision to punish
I think, however, that perhaps Breyer hit the nail on the head. Delving into the First Amendment aspect of the case seems to open a huge can of worms. Both the ruling opinion and the dissent refer to the same case when making their arguments (along with several other cases) and still come out on different sides of this case. I do agree with the dissent that the banner’s message is ambiguous enough, designed by
I realize that we cannot grant students in school the same protections as adults when it comes to speech issues, although I do not necessarily agree. But it is a very precarious line between what they are allowed to say and what is forbidden, and I think schools should be very careful with the speech they punish.