Bong hits for the first amendment

In 1969, the Supreme Court ruled that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” It was a good ruling with exceptions that allowed school officials to bar speech that advocated dangerous or illegal conduct or was substantially disruptive.

The Roberts Supreme Court has expanded schools’ powers to regulate speech in a case in which the speech in question was described as “cryptic,” by Chief Justice John Roberts in the majority, and as “nonsense,” Justice John Paul Stevens dissenting. A more rugged description would be just stupid.

The phrase was the now infamous “BONG HiTS 4 JESUS,” words now enshrined in First Amendment lore. It was written on a 14-foot banner that Alaska high-school student Joseph Frederick unfurled as the Olympic Torch Relay was coming through Juneau.

Frederick was not on school property — he was on a sidewalk opposite his school — but the presence of the students along the relay route was school-sponsored and -supervised. Frederick said he displayed the banner, whose inscription even he found meaningless, solely to get on television.

Why, oh why, do these things become federal cases? Nonetheless, principal Deborah Morse confiscated the banner and suspended Frederick for 10 days on the grounds that the message conflicted with the school’s mission of fighting illegal-drug use.

By 5-4, the court agreed.

But Frederick did not seek to advocate or persuade. Wrote Stevens: “The notion that the message on this banner would actually persuade either the average student or even the dumbest one to change his or her behavior is most implausible.”

By the majority’s reasoning — and its confidence that it could divine meaning in “BONG HiTS 4 JESUS” — the principal could have equally confiscated the banner for impermissible promotion of religion during a school activity.

Under the “bong hits” ruling, school officials gained the court’s backing for making students check at least part of their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate.


  1. kent shaw



    I’m willing to bet similar banners and grafitti turn up all over the place now with participants making sure there is no way to construe a connection with our enlightened educational system.

    Now we are censoring “cryptic” speech and “nonsense” speech? Great. This does not bode well for POLITICAL SPEECH, which is exactly what “BONG HiTS 4 JESUS” was, in a way, mocking religion, which should be protected under the 1st amendment. Freedom of Speech exists for exactly one reason — to protect unpopular speech, to protect against censorship. (Yes, I know, the kids just wanted to get on TeeVee, but “the authorities” chose to make a mountain out of a mole hill).

    What a sad, sorry precedent.


  2. astral66

    …and now there are thirty new designs for “BONG HiTS 4 JESUS” t-shirts at

    …gotta get me one of those. Thanks Supremes!

  3. Warren

    There are the obvious first-order issues with the students’ right to say what they wanted – and not even on school property.

    But the issue I find most disconcerting is “cryptic speech.” Heck, most anything you or I say on any given day could be interpreted as “cryptic” by someone. Especially if that someone was an enemy. Just the threat of lawsuits and their resulting cost is enough to squelch a lot of discussion.