Where Does School Authority End? Supreme Court Will Draw the Line
Published on Tuesday, February 20, 2007 by the Daytona Beach News-Journal (Florida)
Where Does School Authority End? Supreme Court Will Draw the Line
by Pierre Tristam
 

Joseph Frederick was an 18-year-old senior at Juneau-Douglas High School, in Alaska, in January 2002. One morning that month a "Winter Olympics Torch Relay" was passing through town. The event was sponsored by Coca-Cola and other corporations. Students were released from school to see it. Frederick never made it to school. He got stuck in the snow. But he did make it to a sidewalk across from school by the time the torch was passing through. When television cameras caught a glimpse of him and his friends, he unfurled a banner that read, "Bong Hits 4 Jesus." The school principal crossed the street, grabbed Frederick's banner, destroyed it -- destruction of property, anyone? -- and suspended him for 10 days.

"What about the Bill of Rights and freedom of speech?" Frederick asked the principal. Forget it, she replied, saying the banner "violated the policy against displaying offensive material, including material that advertises or promotes use of illegal drugs." But the banner hadn't been displayed on school property. Nor was it a school-sponsored event. Nor were students required to stay if they got bored. They could go home. School was done that day except for some extracurriculars. There was some disorder through all this, but Frederick had nothing to do with it. Coca-Cola had handed out sample drinks for free. Students threw the plastic bottles at each other and had fights, physically or with snowballs. Frederick didn't get involved. Pot enthusiasts tend to be mellow.

At no point had Frederick been in school that day, or involved the school in any way to dissimulate his banner on its way to brief televised, and now much longer legal, fame. Attempting to have his suspension reversed, Frederick failed at every level in the school district, so he sued in federal court on First Amendment grounds. A district court ruled against him, but last March the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the judgment. It's a wonder the matter had to go that far for such a point of law to be settled by the obvious. As the court put it, "the question comes down to whether a school may, in the absence of concern about disruption of educational activities, punish and censor non-disruptive, off-campus speech by students during school-authorized activities because the speech promotes a social message contrary to the one favored by the school. The answer under controlling, long-existing precedent is plainly 'No.' "

The point didn't stay settled for long. Ken Starr, the special prosecutor who spent almost two years perversely diverting the nation's attention to the minutiae of President Clinton's sexual bong hits, is in private practice now. He took up the school's case against Frederick pro bono, appealed it to the Supreme Court and got a hearing. Sometime before July, the court will hand down a decision that will determine to what extent a school can police students' behavior beyond the schoolhouse walls. I'd be happily surprised if the court fell on Frederick's side. It doesn't seem likely to. The legal trend, since the early 1980s, has been almost entirely favoring order at the expense of individual rights. The so-called war on drugs was the smokescreen. The war on terror, with its worship of "security" as an end in itself, is finishing the job. And that's in the world of autonomous adults.

It's been worse in schools, where policing has become literally routine -- with the permanent posting of cops even in elementary schools -- and zero-tolerance policies have warped school campuses into adjuncts of prosecutors' offices. When that principal crossed the street in Juneau, destroyed Frederick's banner and suspended him, she was acting out a presumption that I suspect most people would endorse: Students have to be put in their place for the good of school discipline, mission and so on. Really? But Frederick wasn't disrupting anything that day. He wasn't even smoking pot. He was doing something Jack Kerouac might have done in his day, maybe more poetically but equally humorously. Even if he wasn't, who's the school, who's anyone, to judge what he was doing and why so long as he'd done nothing to impede school business? If anything, it was the torch-passing that had disrupted school, and the exposure of students to soft-drink propaganda and products that was the more questionable message that day: Pound for pound, soft drinks wreck the health of far more Americans, children included, than marijuana does.

Schools' mission is to teach students how to think -- not what to think, where to think it or with whom to think it. Once in a while schools should be put in their place, too. Joseph Frederick's case could do that, assuming the Supreme Court isn't, like so much of our fearful society, stoned on authority.

Pierre Tristam is a News-Journal editorial writer. Reach him at ptristam@att.net or through his personal web site at www.pierretristam.com .

© 2007 News-Journal Corporation

 

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