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School Speech Takes A Hit

Now, Ambiguous Messages Can Be Sanctioned

by Clint Talbot

Chief Justice John Roberts says "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" can "reasonably be viewed" as promoting illegal drug use. Yes, but the phrase can reasonably be viewed as nonsense.

The ambiguity alone should have generated second thoughts in the U.S. Supreme Court, which on Monday ruled that schools could punish the student whose core message — and the fact that he had a message at all — is still in dispute.

In 2002, Alaska high-school student Joseph Frederick joined a school-sanctioned viewing of an Olympic-torch procession. It was then that he unfurled a 14-foot banner that said "Bong Hits 4 Jesus." Frederick said it was a publicity stunt, a way to get on TV. The principal seized the banner and booted the kid from school for 10 days.

Frederick sued, arguing that his First Amendment rights were abridged. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth District agreed with the student, and on Monday the case was settled by the Supreme Court.

The high court's majority held that Frederick's message could be viewed either as an imperative or as a celebration: i.e., either "take bong hits" or "bong hits are good." In either case, the court ruled, the school district was within its rights to punish pro-drug prattle.

Frederick himself says the message had no real meaning, but rather had only a purpose — drawing the cameras' gaze. Even the court's majority concedes this point: "The message on Frederick's banner is cryptic. It is no doubt offensive to some, perhaps amusing to others. To still others, it probably means nothing at all."

But while admitting that the meaning was disputable, the court held that the message was punishable. "Gibberish is surely a possible interpretation of the words on the banner, but it is not the only one, and dismissing the banner as meaningless ignores its undeniable reference to illegal drugs."

Monday's ruling was yet another retreat from the 1969 landmark case Tinker v. Des Moines School District. In that case, a group of students wore black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War. That non-disruptive form of political speech was at the very heart of the purpose of the First Amendment.

How far we've come. In 1969, the court held that students do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolyard gate. Today's court continues its retreat from that precedent. And Justice Clarence Thomas propounds the radical view that "the Constitution does not afford students a right to free speech in public schools."

Thank goodness for Justice John Paul Stevens, whose stinging dissent dissected the majority's disjointed reasoning. Stevens readily conceded the majority's major premises: that students do not enjoy full, adult free-speech rights and that illegal drug use is dangerous.

"But it is a gross non sequitur to draw from these two unremarkable propositions the remarkable conclusion that the school may suppress student speech that was never meant to persuade anyone to do anything," Stevens wrote.

The danger in the "Bong Hits" ruling lies partly in its ambiguity. If schools can punish students for ambiguous messages that make reference to illegal drugs, could they punish a student whose banner read, "What Would Jesus Smoke?"

What if a student wore a T-shirt bearing the title "Reefer Madness"? Again, the message would be ambiguous. It could be an homage to the propaganda film's intent, or it could be a savagely satirical reference. The Supreme Court says the interpretation most unfavorable to the student can be the basis for discipline.

That's not reasonable, and it's no way to teach students the value of civic engagement. Clint Talbot for the editorial board of The Daily Camera.

© 2007 The Daily Camera

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