By John Jalsevac

WASHINGTON, D.C., June 26, 2007 ( – The Supreme Court yesterday ruled against former high school student Joseph Frederick, who was suspended by his school principal for unfurling a large banner in public that said “Bong Hits 4 Jesus.”

Frederick and a number of friends unfurled the cryptic banner as the Winter Olympic torch relay passed by his school in 2002 in Juneau, Alaska. Frederick has said that he intended to convey no definite message with the banner, but simply wanted to grab the attention of the media so as to get on television, and that the words on the banner had no real meaning.

School principal Deborah Morse, however, begged to differ, arguing that the banner in fact promoted illegal drug use, whether intentionally or not, in violation of school policy. A “bong” is a device typically used to smoke marijuana and other illegal drugs. To “take a hit” from a bong is to smoke one.

Frederick displayed the banner during school hours, at a school-sanctioned event, across the street from the school.

After Morse asked Frederick and his friends to take down the banner, and Frederick refused, the school principal confiscated the banner and suspended Frederick. The student, however, argued that the case was a case of violation of his free-speech rights, and took his complaint all the way to the United States Supreme Court.

In a split 5-4 decision, however, the Supreme Court ruled that Frederick’s complaint that his First Amendment rights had been infringed upon held no weight.    

“The message on Frederick’s banner is cryptic,” Chief Justice John Roberts said in the majority opinion. But the school principal who suspended him “thought the banner would be interpreted by those viewing it as promoting illegal drug use, and that interpretation is plainly a reasonable one.”

From the beginning the Bush Administration has supported the school principal in her decision to confiscate Frederick’s banner.

The dissenting justices in the Court argued that to side with the decision of the school principal is to unduly and dangerously take away the free speech rights of students. “Although this case began with a silly nonsensical banner, it ends with the court inventing out of whole cloth a special First Amendment rule permitting the censorship of any student speech that mentions drugs,” wrote Justice John Paul Stevens, on behalf of the dissenters. 

The majority, however, distanced itself from the notion that the case had anything to do with First Amendment Rights, and that it was setting any particularly noteworthy precedents. “Stripped of rhetorical flourishes, then,” wrote Justice Roberts, “the debate between the dissent and this opinion is less about constitutional first principles than about whether Frederick’s banner constitutes promotion of illegal drug use. We have explained our view that it does. The dissent’s contrary view on that relatively narrow question hardly justifies sounding the First Amendment bugle.”
  The Court decision has split religious and pro-life and pro-family groups, with some defending Frederick’s claim to free-speech rights, and others arguing that clearly a school principal has the right to stop one of their students from publicly contravening school policy, especially when it has to do with the apparent promotion of illegal drug use.

“It’s a dangerous idea that government may censor speech based on the vague concept of ‘school mission,’” said Jordan Lorence, senior vice president of the conservative Alliance Defense Fund, on Monday.

“Say a school in San Francisco decided its mission was to support what they call ‘complete equality for gays and lesbians, women’s health and absolute religious diversity.’ That may mean that said school could censor pro-marriage, pro-life and pro-Christian points of view,” Lorence warned.

The National School Boards Association, however, which represents 95,000 local school board members throughout the United States, welcomed the decision.

“As a result of this decision, school administrators don’t have to be afraid of someone looking over their shoulder or second-guessing their decisions as they carry out the policies put in place by schools boards,” said NSBA Executive Director Anne L. Bryant, according to

“The court clearly spoke to the health and well-being of our students, not their constitutional rights of free speech,” said NSBA General Counsel Francisco Negron. “This decision reaffirms the school’s role in regulating messages that are detrimental to student welfare.”

See the Supreme Court’s decision here:


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