Court restricts student expression

By | June 26, 2007 at 9:16 AM

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that school officials retain discretion to censor student speech that they believe may encourage illegal drug use.

A high school principal did not violate the free speech rights of a student when she confiscated a 14-foot prank banner near school grounds during an outdoor school assembly.

In an important First Amendment decision limiting student free speech, the US Supreme Court ruled on Monday that school administrators and teachers retain discretion to censor student speech that they believe may encourage illegal drug use.

The 5-to-4 decision comes in a case involving an Alaska high school student who displayed a banner proclaiming “Bong Hits 4 Jesus.”

The nation’s highest court said the principal of the high school had the authority to confiscate the banner even though it was being displayed on a public sidewalk across the street from school property.

The decision is important because it somewhat expands the authority of school officials to censor student speech when the students are present at school-sponsored events and the message of the student speech is reasonably viewed as promoting illegal drug use.

“The message on [student Joseph Frederick’s] banner was cryptic,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority. “It is no doubt offensive to some, perhaps amusing to others. To still others, it probably means nothing at all.”

Chief Justice Roberts noted that the student himself had claimed that the words were just nonsense meant to attract television cameras. “But Principal [Deborah] Morse thought the banner would be interpreted by those viewing it as promoting illegal drug use,” Roberts wrote. He adds that her interpretation is a “plainly a reasonable one.”

In a dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that in his view the First Amendment protects student speech “if the message itself neither violates a permissible rule nor expressly advocates conduct that is illegal and harmful to students.”

He added, “This nonsense banner does neither.”

“The court does serious violence to the First Amendment in upholding — indeed lauding — a school’s decision to punish [the student] for expressing a view with which it disagreed,” Justice Stevens wrote.

The principal’s action was upheld by the school superintendent, the Juneau School Board, and a federal judge. But a three-judge panel of the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the federal judge, and ruled that the principal could be sued personally for money damages for violating the student’s clearly established free speech rights.

In reversing the Ninth Circuit decision, Roberts wrote: “School principals have a difficult job, and a vitally important one. It was reasonable for [the principal] to conclude that the banner promoted illegal drug use — in violation of established school policy — and that failing to act would send a powerful message to the students in her charge, including Frederick, about how serious the school was about the dangers of illegal drug use.”

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