THE BLOG

Students Free Speech Rights Go Up In Smoke

05/25/2011 12:10 pm ET
  • Anthony Papa Manager of Media & Artist Relations, Drug Policy Alliance

On June 25th student free speech joined the panoply of endangered fundamental rights ready to be stripped away from us due to the tragedy of the drug war. Kenneth Starr, former solicitor general, who reached broad fame by highlighting a presidential sex scandal in the Clinton years, was ecstatic to learn his argument prevailed before the land's highest court in the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" case.

It all started innocently enough when 18-year-old Joe Frederick sought his "15 minutes of fame" by pulling a harmless prank. In 2002, in front of his high school, during a procession of the Olympic torch relay brigade, Joe unrolled a 14-foot banner bearing the words "Bong Hits 4 Jesus." Soon after the cameras caught the act, his high school principal suspended him for ten days for displaying the banner, in apparent violation of school policy limiting speech that promotes illegal drug use. Frederick soon brought a lawsuit against his school principal in which the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in his favor, finding that the principal had violated Frederick's First Amendment rights.

In a 5 to 4 split the Supreme Court issued a mixed opinion in the case of Morse v. Frederick, allowing censorship of student speech that promotes illegal drug use while affirming the core principle that political speech questioning the wisdom of the war on drugs is constitutionally protected.

Justice Alito in his concurring opinion, joined by Justice Kennedy, makes clear that he only joins the majority in so far as it protects speech "that can plausibly be interpreted as commenting on any political or social issue, including speech on issues such as 'the wisdom of the war on drugs or of legalizing marijuana for medicinal use."

"We take mild comfort that the decision clearly protects speech challenging the war on drugs. Never before has the Supreme Court stated so clearly that speech attacking the wisdom of the war on drugs is protected wherever it may occur," said Daniel Abrahamson, director of legal affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance.

"But who is going to decide what is appropriate speech? Students are on the front lines of the war on drugs, and we are deeply concerned that free speech will now be administered by those who may wish to suppress open discussion on a range of topics such as the effectiveness of the D.A.R.E. program, school drug testing policies, or random locker searches," said Abrahamson. "Our Constitutionally protected rights to free speech shouldn't have an arbitrary drug war exception."

Whether it be random, suspicionless student drug testing, or having police dogs sniffing around school lockers for drugs, students are now feeling the heavy-handedness of the government's overzealous efforts to keep them "drug-free." Get busted smoking a joint and lose federal funding for education. Talk about bong hits and face suspension. Where will it end?

In the government's attempt to win the drug war, it has little regard for our precious given rights as outlined in the Constitution. Drug users and people wrestling with addiction everywhere are routinely demonized by the moral majority. Chip by chip or, in this case, bong hit by bong hit, our fundamental rights are going up in smoke. Americans across the land must be made better aware of this travesty.

Everyone who is concerned about free speech should be concerned with the outcome of this case. If the government can silence us about the drug war today, they can silence us on Iraq tomorrow and global warming the day after that.