Morse, Juneau School Bd. v. Joseph Frederick
CIR filed amicus brief in this important free speech case concerning the authority of school officials to punish high school students for speech they deem contrary to the mission or work of the school, including off-campus speech.
The case concerns an Alaska high school that allowed students to leave school in order to observe an Olympic torch parade that was passing through Juneau. When the torch passed, Joseph Frederick unfurled a banner with the words “Bong Hits for Jesus” across the street from the school. He was suspended from school for ten days. Frederick sued and late last year, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in his favor.
School officials, backed by the federal Drug Czar (and two former Drug Czars) contend that Joseph’s flippant speech was designed to promote illegal drug use, which is contrary to the school’s basic educational mission. They asked the Supreme Court to broaden the circumstances under which a school can suppress speech. Under current Supreme Court precedent, a school may regulate the time place and manner of student expression. But it may not suppress speech based solely on its point of view unless it is obscene or clearly disruptive in some other way.
In recent years, schools however, schools have claimed that all sorts of student expression is disruptive and tried to suppress it based solely on its content. Several years ago, a school district in New Jersey suspended a student for wearing a Jeff Foxworthy t-shirt that listed “Ten Reasons Why You Might Be a Rednect Sports Fan.” A vice principal decided the word “redneck” might cause disruption. CIR agreed to represent the student and won an important victory before the U.S. Court of Appeals, which ruled, sensibly, that school officials must have actual evidence of disruption before they punish a student solely for the content of his or her speech.
The Juneau school system, backed by the current and former drug czars, is asking the Supreme Court to broaden the idea of disruption to include not only messages that are actually disruptive but also messages that might conceivably disrupt the school’s ability to communicte its own messages -- in other words, any message that registers an objection to school doctrine. In addition, the school wants to extend the ability to school officials to suppress off-campus speech. If the Supreme Court agrees, almost any form of off-campus expression would be subject to censor by school officials, incuding statements on personal web-pages.
If the Supreme Court goes along with this effort to suppress speech solely because it is critical of school doctrine, it’s unclear what speech would be protected. That's because under the Juneau Schools approach, schools would be free to define their "basic educational mission" any way they wanted. A school could decide that preventing obesity or reducing teen pregnancy was part of their basic educational mission and forbid speech deemed inimical to those objectives, including locker-room jokes or t-shirts promoting unhealthy foods.
CIR's brief urges the Court to leave current law in place, which permits schools to regulate the time, manner and place of speech (including rules of civility) but does not permit schools to regulate the content of speech unless it is disruptive.
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Last revised: 16-Mar-2007