Supreme Court to hear student free speech case

CIR files brief in Alaska banner case, Morse v. Frederick

On Monday, March 19 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear argument in an important free speech case concerning the authority of school officials to punish high school students for any speech they deem contrary to the mission or work of the school. At issue are thousands of high school speech codes, dress codes, and harassment codes that punish students simply for expressing points of view out of favor with school officials, whether on or off campus.

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 are asking the Supreme Court to broaden the circumstances under which a school can suppress speech to include not only messages that are actually disruptive but also messages that might conceivably disrupt the school’s ability to communicate its own messages — in other words, any message that registers an objection to school doctrine. In addition, the school wants to extend its ability to suppress off-campus speech.

CIR’s brief argues that under the Juneau Schools approach, schools are free to define their “basic educational mission” any way they want. A school could decide that preventing obesity or reducing teen pregnancy was part of its basic educational mission and forbid speech deemed inimical to those objectives, including locker-room jokes or t-shirts promoting unhealthy foods.

CIR President Terence Pell commented, “Instead of stretching the First Amendment to cover their own wildly expanded efforts at social control, school officials would do well to use the First Amendment to teach students about the importance of free speech in a civil society. Part of that lesson concerns the importance of civility and rules of respect. But part of the message too would include the importance of the free exchange of ideas that sometimes are controversial and strike adults as flippant.”