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.