An article in yesterday’s edition of The New York Times discussed Morse v. Frederick, better known as the “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” case. Oral arguments for the case begin today in front of the Supreme Court.
The case revolves around the actions of Joseph Frederick, who five years ago as a high school student in Alaska displayed a sign reading “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” as the Olympic torch was carried through downtown Juneau en route to Salt Lake. Juneau-Douglas High School principle Deborah Morse suspended Frederick for ten days—a disciplinary action that has sparked one of the hottest free speech in secondary education debates to come along in years. The impending decision in Morse will likely have all the lasting importance of Tinker v. Des Moines (1969), the Vietnam-era case that established that neither students nor teachers “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
The Times article focuses on the surprising coalition that has lined up in support of Frederick, who says his only intention in unfurling his banner was “to be meaningless and funny, in order to get on television.” The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Center for Individual Rights (CIR), and the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) have of course rushed to Frederick’s side. But they are joined by the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), the Christian Legal Society (CLS), the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), and Liberty Legal Institute (LLI). The Times says that this latter, more conservative alliance is “alarmed by what they see as the implication that school boards could define their mission as they wished and could suppress countervailing speech accordingly.”
FIRE is absent from that list because we focus exclusively on free speech in higher education. With that said, we share all the above organizations’ concerns that this decision will have implications far beyond drug-related expression or secondary education. The CLS, for example, filed an amicus brief on behalf of Frederick because its law school chapters—like the groups at Southern Illinois University and Pace Law School—have been plagued by institutional encroachments on individuals’ freedom of expression for years.
Reacting to the organizational alliances coalescing in support of free expression and the right to be both “meaningless and funny,” Kenneth Starr, who represents Deborah Morse and the Juneau School Board, told the Times, perhaps mockingly, that “[i]t’s reassuring to have lots of friends of liberty running around.”
Indeed. We’ll all be watching closely as this case proceeds.