Can a high school student display a banner that says "Bong Hits 4 Jesus"? That's the question the Supreme Court debated this week in a case pitting the free-speech rights of the student against the duty of his school to warn against the dangers of drugs.
But in this case, both sides are wrong. The banner was a foolish vulgarity, unworthy of court-affirmed protection for politically meaningful speech. Under the school's theory, meanwhile, educators could censor any speech that contradicted their goals or ideas. And that might be the scariest idea of all.
This strange saga began five years ago in Juneau, Alaska. The school let students leave the building to see the Olympic torch en route to the 2002 Winter Games. As the torch passed by, senior Joseph Frederick unfurled his banner. Principal Deborah Morse ordered Mr. Frederick to take it down; when he refused, she tore it down. Later, she suspended Frederick for 10 days. Frederick sued, citing the Supreme Court's 1969 warning – in Tinker v. Des Moines – that students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."
Technically, Frederick was outside the "schoolhouse gate." But no matter where he was, Frederick insists, he had the right to display his banner.
That's where he's wrong. In the Tinker case, a school tried to stop students from wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. Ruling in favor of the students, the Supreme Court took pains to distinguish their "pure speech" – that is, speech of a political nature – from other forms.
Only political speech merited protection, the court said, noting the special purpose of education in a democracy: to develop free and independent minds. Public schools "may not be enclaves of totalitarianism," the court admonished. Instead, schools should promote "a robust exchange of ideas."
So what "exchange of ideas" did Frederick aim to provoke?
None. As Frederick later testified, he chose his slogan "to be meaningless and funny" and "to get on television." He recently admitted that the phrase was irrelevant. "I wasn't trying to say anything about religion. I wasn't trying to say anything about drugs," Frederick said. "I was just trying to say something."