Bong hits for free speech

ALMOST FOUR DECADES after ruining the day of public school administrators nationwide by proclaiming that children do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” the Supreme Court was asked Monday to change course. It should decline the invitation.

In its 1969 Tinker vs. Des Moines decision upholding the right of students to express themselves -- so long as the speech doesn’t pose a threat of “substantial disruption” -- the high court overturned the suspensions of some Iowa students who had worn black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. Monday’s oral arguments concerned a less high-minded expression of opinion: a banner waved by a Juneau, Alaska, student that said: “Bong Hits 4 Jesus.”

It’s tempting, in comparing the two cases, to suggest that they vindicate Karl Marx’s observation that history eventually repeats itself as farce. Certainly a silent protest against war is a more dignified use of the 1st Amendment than the banner unfurled by 18-year-old Joseph Frederick in January 2002 as the Olympic torch relay passed through Juneau.

Actually, it isn’t clear what message Frederick was trying to convey, though the principal of his school regarded it as an offensive pro-drug message and suspended him for 10 days. (Never mind that he was standing on a public street when he displayed his banner for the edification or amusement of schoolmates who had been accompanied to the procession by their teachers.)

Frederick may not be the ideal poster boy for student free-speech rights. But there is a reason that the American Center for Law and Justice, which was founded by religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, filed a brief supporting the “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” kid. As is so often the case in free-speech cases, a ruling against Frederick would undermine the rights of others who want to express very different opinions -- including religious ones.


On Monday, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said he found “very, very disturbing” the argument that a public school could suppress an opinion inconsistent with its educational mission -- in this case, its mission to discourage drug use. So do we.

Many school officials (and a few judges) would like the high court to squeeze the genie of student free speech back into the constitutional bottle. Children and teenagers are not adults, they say, and the expression by some students of sincerely held opinions on everything from religion to drugs to the war in Iraq can make life uncomfortable for their classmates. Besides, they argue, school is a place for learning, not for controversy.

The high court dealt with these concerns in the Tinker decision. Quoting an earlier ruling, the court said: “The nation’s future depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to [the] robust exchange of ideas.” So long as the expression of those ideas doesn’t disrupt the educational process, students should be able to speak their minds -- even about bong hits for Jesus.