WASHINGTON - A divided U.S. Supreme Court on Monday curtailed free-speech rights for students, ruling against a teenager who unfurled a banner saying "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" because the message could be interpreted as promoting drug use.In its first major decision on student free-speech rights in nearly 20 years, the high court's conservative majority ruled that a high school principal did not violate the student's rights by confiscating the banner and suspending him.
Student Joseph Frederick says the banner's language was meant to be nonsensical and funny, a prank to get on television as the Winter Olympic torch relay passed by the school in January 2002 in Juneau, Alaska.
But school officials say the phrase "bong hits" refers to smoking marijuana. Principal Deborah Morse suspended Frederick for 10 days because she said the banner advocated or promoted illegal drug use in violation of school policy.
The majority opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts, who was appointed to the court by President George W. Bush, agreed with Morse.
He said a principal may, consistent with the First Amendment, restrict student speech at a school event when it is reasonably viewed as promoting illegal drug use.
"Student speech celebrating illegal drug use at a school event ... poses a particular challenge for school officials working to protect those entrusted to their care from the dangers of drug abuse," Roberts wrote.
Liberal Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented on the free-speech issue and said the majority seriously harmed the First Amendment by allowing Frederick's punishment for expressing a view the school disagreed with.
"No one seriously maintains that drug advocacy (much less Frederick's ridiculous sign) comes within the vanishingly small category of speech that can be prohibited because of its feared consequences," Stevens said.
"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," he wrote.
Justice Stephen Breyer said he would have decided the case without reaching the free-speech issue by ruling the principal cannot be held liable for damages.
The Bush administration supported Morse and argued that public schools do not have to tolerate a message inconsistent with its basic educational mission.
Frederick's lawyer had urged the Supreme Court to follow its famous 1969 ruling that students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate," a decision that allowed students to wear black armbands in class to protest the Vietnam War.
But the Supreme Court's last major rulings on the issue have gone against the students.
The court ruled in 1986 that a student does not have a free-speech right to give a sexually suggestive speech at an assembly and in 1988 that school newspapers can be censored.
© Reuters 2007