It's amusing to find phrases such as "BONG HITS 4 JESUS" amidst the stiff legalese of a U.S. Supreme Court opinion. But unfortunately, the recent ruling in Morse v. Frederick has turned Gadfly's laughter to disappointment. First the good news: in a 6-3 decision, the Court held that Principal Deborah Morse did not violate student Joseph Frederick's First Amendment rights when she suspended him for holding up at a school parade a banner with the aforementioned phrase. It was a clear victory for Principal Morse, who could have faced crippling financial penalties. But it was a giant setback for educators overall, because the court decided the case on such narrow grounds. Justice Alito wrote that a school may only restrict speech that "a reasonable observer would interpret as advocating illegal drug use." If in the future students opt to disrupt school in other ways--advocating the joys of vodka, say, or the right to bear arms in tenth grade--it seems such cases must be litigated on a one-by-one basis. The lone voice of reason belonged to Justice Thomas, who wrote that "it cannot be seriously suggested that the First Amendment... encompasses a student's right to speak in public schools." Most are, after all, minors. Do six-year-olds have a Constitutional right to free speech? Twelve-year-olds? School leaders need to maintain order and discipline over their charges. They shouldn't need to employ on-site lawyers to do so.
"Vote Against Banner Shows Divide on Speech in Schools," by Linda Greenhouse, New York Times, June 26, 2007
"Bong Hits 4 Jesus--Final Episode," by Daniel Henninger, Wall Street Journal, June 28, 2007