The 14-foot-long banner read "Bong Hits 4 Jesus," and its creator, Joseph Frederick, was proud. And while many in his Juneau, Alaska, community considered Frederick little more than a wise guy and a troublemaker during the event in 2002, today he's become a bona fide international activist for free speech when what was once a rivalry between him and his principal, Deborah Morse, became the Supreme Court case Frederick v. Morse as the case reached the high court.
Mary Beth Tinker, of the landmark Supreme Court free speech case Tinker v. Des Moines even showed up for today's hearing.
In Des Moines, Iowa, in 1965, Tinker -- then 13 years old -- likewise had no idea what she was getting herself into when she slid on a black armband in an expression of opposition to the war in Vietnam.
But the principal found the armband was disruptive, Tinker was suspended and the Iowa Civil Liberties Union sued the school. In 1969, Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas wrote the majority opinion that students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of expression or speech at the schoolhouse gate."
Frederick had a "lot more to say than the message that was on the banner itself," Tinker, now a pediatric nurse, told reporters today. "I've spoken with him, and I'm quite clear that he was speaking up for the right of all students for free speech."
Frederick was unavailable for comment; he's in China teaching English.
But in a conference call with reporters he called his stunt -- which took place off school property in 2002 as the Olympic torch proceeded through his Alaska town -- a "free speech experiment" that he conducted "at a time when I felt free speech was eroding in America. … The phrase 'Bong hits 4 Jesus' was never meant to have any substantive meaning, and it was certainly not intended as a drug or religious message."
With a young person's idealistic sass, Frederick recalled his conversation with his principal, with whom he had tangled over other free speech issues, including Frederick's reluctance to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
"She suspended me for five days, and I could not believe I was being suspended for a free speech experiment," he said. After quoting Thomas Jefferson who said, 'speech limited is speech lost,' Frederick recalled, "Ms. Morse responded that 'You just earned another five days' suspension.'"
Since that landmark Tinker ruling, however, and particularly after the Columbine massacre heightened issues of bullying and the consequences of intimidating school atmospheres, school administrators have curtailed free speech in the name of student harmony. And often courts have held up those actions if the speech is disruptive, offensive or part of an official school activity such as a student newspaper.
But where should that line be drawn?
Despite their opposition to bong hits -- whether or not they're "4 Jesus" -- conservative Christian groups today sided with Frederick. They want students to be able to stand up for conservative beliefs in what they see as the overly secular and liberal world of public schools.