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U.S. high court hears "Bong hits 4 Jesus" case

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In its first major student free-speech rights case in almost 20 years, U.S. Supreme Court justices struggled on Monday with how far schools can go in censoring students.

A student participates in a free-speech rally outside the Supreme Court, March 19, 2007. REUTERS/Molly Riley

In a case involving a Juneau, Alaska, high school student suspended for unfurling a banner that read “Bong Hits 4 Jesus”, several justices seemed wary about giving a principal too much authority at the expense of the student’s right to express his views.

“It’s political speech, it seems to me. I don’t see what it disrupts,” a sceptical Justice David Souter said.

“And no one was smoking pot in that crowd,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, referring to the group of students standing near the banner as the Winter Olympic torch relay passed by in January 2002.

The incident occurred during school hours but on a public sidewalk across from the school.

Student Joseph Frederick says the banner’s language was meant to be meaningless and funny in an effort to get on television.

Principal Deborah Morse said the phrase “bong hits” referred to smoking marijuana. She suspended Frederick for 10 days because the banner advocated or promoted illegal drug use in violation of school policy.

Justice Stephen Breyer said he was struggling with the case.

A ruling for Frederick could result in students “testing limits all over the place in the high schools” while a ruling against Frederick “may really limit people’s rights on free speech”, Breyer said.

Kenneth Starr, the former special prosecutor who investigated former President Bill Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal, said Morse acted reasonably and in accord with the school’s anti-drug mission.

A Bush administration lawyer, Edwin Kneedler, argued for a broad rule that public schools do not have to tolerate a message inconsistent with its basic educational mission.

“I find that a very, very disturbing argument,” Justice Samuel Alito said, adding that schools could define their educational mission so broadly to suppress political speech and speech expressing fundamental student values.

Justice Anthony Kennedy asked Kneedler if the principal could have required the banner be taken down if it had said “vote Republican, vote Democrat”.

Kneedler replied the principal has that authority.

Frederick’s lawyer, Douglas Mertz of Juneau, said: “This is a case about free speech. It is not a case about drugs.”

Mertz argued the court should not abandon its famous 1969 ruling that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” a decision that allowed students to wear black armbands in class to protest the Vietnam War.

But the Supreme Court’s last major rulings on the issue went against the students.

The court ruled in 1986 that a student does not have a free-speech right to give a sexually suggestive speech at an assembly and in 1988 that school newspapers can be censored.

A decision in the case is expected by the end of June.