Monday, June 25, 2007

Supreme Court decides High School Principal outranks the First Amendment.

Quite a few years ago I was involved in helping to organize a union one of my former work places. At one point we decided that we wanted to have a peaceful picket and demonstration. So we petitioned management to allow us to demonstrate in a courtyard outside of their offices. They refused, so we picketed and demonstrated on a sidewalk, which in fact was along a road that major road that ran right through the middle of our workplace. In the end the management backed down and backed off of the specific decision they had made which prompted the demonstration, in no small part because of the citywide press coverage that the demonstration got (they'd have been much better off if they had approved the original site.)

The reason the sidewalk was chosen was very plain: it was public access. It was the one place on-site where management had no legal sway, and by law we had the right to demonstrate as long as we did so in a manner that did not block access for anyone else wanting to use the sidewalk or interfere with traffic.

And that is what makes today's Supreme Court decision very troubling. By a 6-3 majority, the court ruled to restrict free speech by students on a public sidewalk.

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Supreme Court ruled against a former high school student Monday in the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" banner case -- a split decision that limits students' free speech rights.

Joseph Frederick was 18 when he unveiled the 14-foot paper sign on a public sidewalk outside his Juneau, Alaska, high school in 2002.

Principal Deborah Morse confiscated it and suspended Frederick. He sued, taking his case all the way to the nation's highest court.

The justices ruled 6-3 that Frederick's free speech rights were not violated by his suspension over what the majority's written opinion called a "sophomoric" banner...

"It was reasonable for (the principal) to conclude that the banner promoted illegal drug use-- and that failing to act would send a powerful message to the students in her charge," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court's majority.

The substance of the banner is irrelevant. Either this student (and by implication all students, or all people) have a right to express their views in public, or they don't. In the end it is that simple.

Suppose that the banner had read, 'prayer 4 Jesus.' Would the conservative justices who voted against Frederick then vote to allow him to display his banner (or for that matter, it is fair to ask whether the three liberal justices who supported him would vote against him?) And if the answer is 'yes,' then wouldn't it plainly mean that the decision was based on the personal viewpoints of the justices and not the matter of free speech at all?

There is no question that the school has every right to control what is said on school grounds-- they have jurisdiction there, but with this decision can they then ban what students can say off campus? Could they enforce dress codes even when students are not at school? Could they punish students if they write a letter to the paper that portrays the school in an unflattering light? The implications are chilling.

And it won't stop with students. If Mr. Frederick can't display the banner across from his school, could you? Maybe prinicipal Morse might not have any jurisdiction over you, but the mayor would. Or the Governor. Or the President. This ruling represents a real restriction on the rights of all of us.

And don't let anyone fool you into thinking that it does not.


shrimplate said...

In light of the high court's decision, perhaps the banner in question should have been fashioned to state "Bong Hits 4 Kafka."

Anonymous said...

"The substance of the banner is irrelevant. Either this student (and by implication all students, or all people) have a right to express their views in public, or they don't. In the end it is that simple."

Really? Suppose the T-shirt had said "Kill all niggers". Or even "Nappy-headed hos".

Eli Blake said...


I've in the past supported the right of people who use the 'n'-word to say it (for example, see this post.)

That doesn't protect people from ridicule, disgust and even civil suits, but it does protect them from being told they can't say what they want.

I will even concede that while this was a public school, it is not a public domain so the principal certainly does have the right to restrict what the student can say on the school grounds-- but the sidewalk is public domain and to restrict speech in a public domain requires an act of Congress-- i.e. the rule against campaign signs within 75 feet of a poll on election day (and even then the court can overrule Congress, as happened also in the past week on a McCain-Feingold restriction.)