- The Washington Times - Monday, March 19, 2007

ASSOCIATED PRESS

A high school principal was acting reasonably and in accord with the school’s anti-drug mission when she suspended a student for displaying a “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” banner, her lawyer told the Supreme Court yesterday.

“The message here is, in fact, critical,” the lawyer, former independent counsel Kenneth Starr, said during a lively argument about whether the principal violated the constitutional rights of the student.

On the other side, attorney Douglas Mertz of Juneau, Alaska, urged the justices to see the case as being about free speech — not drugs.

The dispute between Joseph Frederick, who in 2002 was a high school senior, and principal Deborah Morse has become an important test of the limits on the free-speech rights of students.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer, addressing Mr. Mertz, said he is struggling with the case because a ruling in Mr. Frederick’s favor could encourage students to go to absurd lengths to test those limits.

A ruling for Mr. Morse, however, “may really limit free speech,” Justice Breyer said.

The Bush administration, backing Miss Morse, wants the court to adopt a broad rule that could essentially give public schools the right to clamp down on any speech with which it disagrees.

Mr. Frederick was a high school senior in Juneau when he decided to display the banner at a school-sanctioned event to watch the Olympic torch pass through the city on its way to the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City.

Miss Morse believed his “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” banner was a pro-drug message that schools should not tolerate. She suspended Mr. Frederick for 10 days. He sued her, and that case now is before the court.

Mr. Frederick acknowledged he was trying to provoke a reaction from school administrators with whom he had feuded, but he denied that he was speaking out in favor of drugs or anything other than free speech. A bong is a water pipe that is used to smoke marijuana.

“I waited until the perfect moment to unveil it, as the TV cameras [following the torch relay] passed,” Mr. Frederick said.

Miss Morse and the Juneau school district argue that schools will be powerless to discipline students who promote illegal drugs if the court sides with Mr. Frederick. Other school boards and anti-drug school groups are supporting Miss Morse.

Mr. Frederick, now 23, counters that students could be silenced if the court reverses the appellate ruling. A wide assortment of conservative and liberal advocacy groups are behind Mr. Frederick.

In a Vietnam War era case, the court backed high school student anti-war demonstrators who wore armbands to class. Since then, though, the court has sanctioned curtailing student speech when it is disruptive to a school’s educational mission, plainly offensive or part of a school-sponsored activity like a student newspaper.

A federal appeals court called Mr. Frederick’s message “vague and nonsensical” in ruling that his civil rights had been violated. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also said Miss Morse would have to compensate Mr. Frederick for her actions because she should have known they violated the Constitution.

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