Bong hits 4 free speech

A prankster who held up a “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” sign on the sidewalk across from his Alaska high school made it to the Supreme Court. On Slate, Dahlia Lithwick reports on oral arguments.

The Bush administration — with former special prosecutor Ken Starr in the lead — argued the principal had the right to suspend the student for contradicting the school’s anti-drug message. Students had been let out of school to watch the Olympic torch relay go past.

Souter asks whether a simple sign reading “Change the Marijuana Laws” would also be “disruptive.” Starr says that interpreting the meaning of the sign must be left to the “frontline message interpreter,” in this case, the principal. Then Starr says schools are charged with inculcating “habits and manners of civility” and “values of citizenship.” Yes, sir. In the first six minutes of oral argument Starr has posited, without irony, a world in which students may not peaceably advocate for changes in the law, because they must be inculcated with the values of good citizenship.

On the other side, evangelicals “sit, improbably, at the stoners’ table in the cafeteria today,” writes Lithwick. “The targets of most school suppression of politically incorrect speech are religious students sporting pro-Jesus or anti-gay T-shirts.”

The Ninth Circuit sided with the student, notes Debra Saunders.

Judge Andrew Kleinfeld wrote, “All sorts of missions are undermined by legitimate and protected speech — a school’s anti-gun mission would be undermined by a student passing around copies of John R. Lott’s book, ‘More Guns, Less Crime’; a school’s anti-alcohol mission would be undermined by a student e-mailing links to a medical study showing less heart disease among moderate drinkers than teetotalers.”

The Supremes appeared to be very dubious of the “mission” argument, especially since the student wasn’t in a classroom or even in school.

Ann Althouse, who already longs for the day when “Bong hits 4 Jesus” appears in her law textbooks, has more.

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  1. Maybe the kid should claim he left off part of the sign. It should have said, “Bong Hits 4, Jesus 9.”

  2. Kirk Parker says:

    I’m not unhappy with the result the 9th reached (no, really, I’m not!) But how troubling it is that Judge Klienfeld was able to pull a “school’s anti-gun mission” out of his hat and nobody gasped. Would this have passed without a comment if he had said, “anti-materialism mission” or “anti-capitalism mission” or “anti-leftist mission”? I think we can all agree with crime is a problem, but guns in the abstract? Didn’t another circuit just address this issue?

  3. wayne martin says:

    > Souter again insists that the “bong hits” statement itself
    > should be scrutinized for its meaning.

    And we pay public officials to do this as their “day job”?

    > But Kneedler responds that the only person who can
    > determine the banner’s meaning is the educator
    > who banned it.

    This is both absurd and frightening.

    Wonder if this is what the founders meant when they penned the First Amendment?

    “But won’t the principal always prevail?” asks Justice John
    Paul Stevens. Um, yes. That seems to be the point.

    Kafka would be so delighted to see his works in action.

  4. SuperSub says:

    The boy was a jerk by holding the sign, and the school was correct in punishing him for making an arse of himself. He was not jailed, nor did the actual government take action against him.
    The only people who I’m ashamed more of for being fellow Americans are his parents, who allowed (and probably helped initiate) this travesty of a court action.

  5. Indigo Warrior says:

    First of all, I believe that the school in question was a non-partisan public school not a private one. Therefore, such a school was wrong to have a political mission, whether anti-drug, anti-gun, or anti-anything-not-related-to-education. The student who protested was within his rights to do so, jerk or not.

    Also, do not confuse anti-gun with anti-violence. Handguns do happen to be one of the best personal defenses against animalistic violence. Domination through personal disarmament has a long and respectable history, from the Kremlin on down.

  6. SuperSub says:

    Everyday in schools around the nation students are punished (detention, suspension) for disruptive activities, whether they are free speech or not. Free speech cannot be used to defend idiotic and disruptive actions by students. If a student decides to unfurl a 14 foot banner in your classroom (no matter what it says), would you just sit there because it could be considered free speech?
    There is nothing political at all about the school prinicipal tearing down the banner. It could have been pro-life/choice, pro/anti-gun, or taken any sort of stance, and I’m pretty sure the principal’s action would have been the same. How does this differ from pranksters hanging a banner that says “This school sucks” from a window in a school? It could be construed as a political message, as schools are funded by the government. Would you simply allow your students to hang that from your window?
    There is one big difference between those examples and the actual case, though… the student’s banner was endorsing an illegal act. It really cannot even be compared to pro-gun sentiment, as the use of guns is legal.
    Hopefully the Supreme Court will decide in favor of the school and award payment to the school fromt he parents to repay the legal costs. Only then will this stupidity end.

  7. Students had been let out of school to watch the Olympic torch go by. When the student held the sign up for TV cameras, he was standing on a sidewalk across the street from the high school. If he’d been in class, the disruption argument would make sense.

  8. wayne martin says:

    > Students had been let out of school to watch the
    > Olympic torch go by. When the student held the sign
    > up for TV cameras, he was standing on a sidewalk across
    > the street from the high school.

    I wonder how this story would have played if the Principal, realizing that the kid was doing something dumb that brought discredit to himself and the school, asked the TV station to digitally edit out the lettering on the sign?

    While this smacks of censorship .. certainly would have solved a lot of problems.

  9. SuperSub says:

    First of all, I apologize if I’ve sounded a little irritated, it’s just that there is a student at my school who has and continues to attempt something similar in the classroom.
    From what I have read on this story, while the students were off school grounds, they were at a school supervised event. The teachers were with their classes (supposedly). I do not see how this differs from a field trip. Although they may be off school grounds, the school seems to still be responsible for the students.
    I am disappointed that the school has allowed the dialogue to shift to the nature of the student’s speech instead of focusing simply on the behavioral aspect of the case. I’m guessing that they felt it necessary to address it to justify the longer suspension.
    But for me, it is all summed up by the student’s own statement that “he displayed the banner in a deliberate attempt to provoke a response from principal Morse.”

  10. wayne martin says:

    Here’s another quote from the link previously posted:

    > “I find it absurdly funny,” he said. “I was
    > not promoting drugs. … I assumed most people
    > would take it as a joke.”

    Seems that Principal Morse didn’t have the same sense of humor as “most people”.

    Wonder how this story would have played if the Principal had done nothing?