- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 24, 2007

There’s an old axiom about bad cases making bad law and that just might be the result of the Supreme Court’s latest deliberation over what constitutes free speech. The justices, who seem to work to avoid tackling some of the thornier issues of the day, just completed listening to arguments centering on whether a teenager has the right to act like one and say silly, provocative things.

If you missed it, this kid in Alaska a couple of years ago unfurled a sign during an Olympic torch parade that said “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” and was suspended from school for 10 days though he wasn’t on school property.

It seems his principal saw this sort of nonsensical message as blatantly furthering the drug culture. So the kid did what every redblooded American is trained to do in these instances, he sued the school and the school board, contending his First Amendment rights had been violated.

Incredibly, this relatively minor incident, perpetrated by an adolescent and furthered by an overzealous school official, has wound its way to the highest court in the land where the fate of free speech for students — and perhaps all of us — may be decided. But it is the nature of our system that the slightly silly, avoidable events become the catalysts for deciding such weighty matters.

In the good old days, if there ever really was such a time, this would never have come up because teachers seemed to have more common sense about how to deal with cheeky juveniles. Barring an offender’s possible record as a chronic delinquent — which doesn’t seem the problem in this instance — the normal response would have been to ignore it or issue a stern order to knock it off with the threat of a few hours of detention after school. But in this age of schoolhouse violence, even the slightest variation from what administrators regard as acceptable language or behavior becomes a major infraction. Thus, a young man who realizes he has his two-bit pocket knife in his jacket when he enters the school and dutifully turns it in at the office is still seen as having violated the letter of the law by bringing the knife to school and is suspended. It happened.

My youngest son, always a lippy kid, had a penchant for ending up in the principal’s office over politically incorrect remarks. It always resulted in a telephone call to his mother who invariably asked whether he had threatened anyone, broken anything or used bad or disrespectful language. Thankfully, the answer always was negative and her response was always the same. She suggested that discipline fitting the crime be handled at school, i.e., extra work or detention. She would give the matter her full attention when he got home, she said.

In the matter of the dumb banner we have a case so blown out of proportion it could give schools far more authority than they should ever have to curtail free expression while severely damaging that right for all of us. For most of this nation’s history the content of speech has been protected. Only speech that incites to wrongdoing or causes chaos has not. You can’t incite to riot or violence or shout “fire” in a crowded theater. The court has even ruled that burning the American flag is protected speech.

A wise court will see the danger in letting school administrators decide they can curtail any speech viewed as not in tune with the mission of the institution. Such a judgment would extend the legal boundaries for repressing ideas and thoughts almost beyond limit. Almost anything one said could be interpreted as contrary to the mission of the classroom. If academic freedom is not a mere illusion, students at varying levels of development should have the leeway to say what is on their minds.

Not to overstate things, there is considerable concern this could be the perfect example of the axiom about bad cases. The fact the court took it has given it huge gravity. One can only pray they approach the issue prudently and in the context of teenage expression, which also needs protecting no matter how jarring to adults.

Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.

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