June 25, 2007 — -- A divided Supreme Court ruled Monday that schools can punish a student -- without violating his First Amendment rights -- when he promotes illegal drug use at a school event.
Writing for a 5-4 majority, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote: "We hold that schools may take steps to safeguard those entrusted to their care from speech that can reasonably be regarded as encouraging illegal drug use."
The case stemmed from an incident in January 2002 in which a crowd of students, townspeople and teachers gathered on a public street in Alaska across from a high school to watch the Olympic torch relay pass in front of them as part of a parade in support of the upcoming Winter Olympic Games.
Student Joseph Frederick wanted to make a statement about his First Amendment rights in front of the television crews covering the event. As the crowd thickened, he unfurled a banner with the message "Bong Hits 4 Jesus."
Frederick had been bothered in his senior year by the lack of attention to the issue of freedom of speech in the United States, and at his school in particular. In briefs, Frederick argued that he was only trying to assert his rights and that the message was not an attempt to "spread any idea."
His school principal, Deborah Morse, was not amused. She marched across the street and seized the banner and later suspended Frederick, who had had previous disciplinary problems at school. She accused Frederick of violating the school's policy against displaying offensive material and advocating the use of illegal drugs.
Frederick, however, turned around and sued not only Morse but also his school board, saying that the school had violated his First Amendment rights. He argued that he was not on school property.
Roberts said that Frederick was indeed at a school sponsored event and his sign — while "cryptic" — could reasonably be defined by Morse as "promoting illegal drug use."
Roberts wrote: "School principals have a difficult job, and a vitally important one. When Frederick suddenly and unexpectedly unfurled his banner, Morse had to decide to act -- or not act -- on the spot."
Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for Justices David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg in dissent, agreed that the principal should not be held liable for pulling down Frederick's banner but that the school "cannot justify" its punishment of Frederick for an "ambiguous statement to a television audience simply because it contained an oblique reference to drugs. The First Amendment demands more, indeed, much more."
Lawyers for Morse had argued that she was responsible for "maintaining order and proper decorum" at a gathering outside of the school. In briefs her lawyers argued, "She responsibly took the appropriate action to ensure that the Olympic torch relay event was not further disrupted by Frederick's pro-drug banner."
In 1969, the Supreme Court ruled that students could wear black armbands to protest Vietnam. It established the right to speak freely in schools. Since that decision a lot has changed. Other cases have reached courts that limited students' free speech.
Schools have had to find ways to control gangs, stop school shootings, deal with perceived hostility toward religion in public schools and cope with a rise of drugs and alcohol on campus.