Monday, March 19, 2007

Holy Moley! Bong Hits 4 Jesus!

Today, the Supreme Court is hearing arguments on a Freedom of Speech issue driven by our old friends Kenneth Starr and George "The Decider" Bush.

A high school student seeking nothing more than his fifteen seconds of local TV exposure created the nonsensical banner entitled, Bong Hits 4 Jesus. The principal of the school destroyed the sign. The issue is whether or not students have the right to free expression when the ideas expressed distress the school administrators. This is not about pornographic, salacious, or profane messages, this is about words.

In this case the prosecutors think that if the substance implied in the message is illegal then the words used as labels for the stuff that's illegal is illegal as well. Welcome to Bush World.

From Free-Speech Case Divides Bush and Religious Right by Linda Greenhouse, New York Times:
On the surface, Joseph Frederick’s dispute with his principal, Deborah Morse, at the Juneau-Douglas High School in Alaska five years ago appeared to have little if anything to do with religion — or perhaps with much of anything beyond a bored senior’s attitude and a harried administrator’s impatience.

As the Olympic torch was carried through the streets of Juneau on its way to the 2002 winter games in Salt Lake City, students were allowed to leave the school grounds to watch. The school band and cheerleaders performed. With television cameras focused on the scene, Mr. Frederick and some friends unfurled a 14-foot-long banner with the inscription: “Bong Hits 4 Jesus.”

Mr. Frederick later testified that he designed the banner, using a slogan he had seen on a snowboard, “to be meaningless and funny, in order to get on television.” Ms. Morse found no humor but plenty of meaning in the sign, recognizing “bong hits” as a slang reference to using marijuana. She demanded that he take the banner down. When he refused, she tore it down, ordered him to her office, and gave him a 10-day suspension.

Mr. Fredericks’s ensuing lawsuit and the free-speech court battle that resulted, in which he has prevailed so far, is one that, classically, pits official authority against student dissent. It is the first Supreme Court case to do so directly since the court upheld the right of students to wear black arm bands to school to protest the war in Vietnam, declaring in Tinker v. Des Moines School District that “it can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

Furthermore;
What galvanized most of the groups on Mr. Frederick’s side was the breadth of the arguments made on the other side. The solicitor general’s brief asserts that under the Supreme Court’s precedents, student speech “may be banned if it is inconsistent with a school’s basic educational mission.”

The Juneau School Board’s mission includes opposing illegal drug use, the administration’s brief continues, citing as evidence a 1994 federal law, the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act, which requires that schools, as a condition of receiving federal money, must “convey a clear and consistent message” that using illegal drugs is “wrong and harmful.”

Mr. Starr’s main brief asserts that the court’s trilogy of cases “stands for the proposition that students have limited free speech rights balanced against the school district’s right to carry out its educational mission and to maintain discipline.” The brief argues that even if Ms. Morse applied that precept incorrectly to the facts of this case, she is entitled to immunity from suit because she could have reasonably believed that the law was on her side.

The religious groups were particularly alarmed by what they saw as the implication that school boards could define their “educational mission” as they wished and could suppress countervailing speech accordingly.

“Holy moly, look at this! To get drugs we can eliminate free speech in schools?” is how Robert A. Destro, a law professor at Catholic University, described his reaction to the briefs for the school board when the Liberty Legal Institute asked him to consider participating on the Mr. Frederick’s behalf. He quickly signed on.

Having worked closely with Republican administrations for years, Mr. Destro said he was hard pressed to understand the administration’s position. “My guess is they just hadn’t thought it through,” he said in an interview. “To the people who put them in office, they are making an incoherent statement.”

Incoherent? And that's a surprise?



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