What should we make of a nonsensical statement on a 14-foot banner, held by a high school student, combining religion and drug use? Suspension? Does it warrant revocation of his First Amendment rights?
These are the questions raised as the Supreme Court this week debated how restrictive schools could be in limiting a student's right to free speech.
In 2002, Joseph Frederick, then an 18-year-old senior in Juneau Alaska, along with several other students held the 14-foot banner that read, "Bong Hits 4 Jesus." when the torch for the Winter Olympics was scheduled to pass in front of the high school. Frederick was standing on a public street as the TV cameras came into range.
The school's principal, Deborah Morse, took the banner away from the students and sent Frederick to the office. He was suspended for 10 days. A federal judge rejected his claim, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled for the student and said the principal could be forced to pay damages.
According to the 9th Circuit ruling, the student had a right to express himself as long as he didn't disrupt the school or its educational mission. Citing the 1969 ruling Tinker v. Des Moines decision, the court declared that a school district was "not entitled to suppress speech that undermines whatever mission it defines for itself." Under Tinker, student speech is protected unless it is disruptive or invades the rights of other students.
"A school cannot censor or punish students' speech merely because the students advocate a position contrary to government policy," Judge Andrew Kleinfeld said in the 3-0 ruling last year.
I would not be thrilled if, as a parent, I received a call from school stating that my son was holding a "Bong Hits for Jesus" banner as a parade passed. But does that warrant suspension from school, especially if he is not on school property?
I would, however, be extremely upset with the school, if learning that he attempted to justify his position by quoting Thomas Jefferson and the First Amendment, only to have his suspension increased from 5 days to 10, as was the case with Frederick.
I must admit a prejudice for any student that spends his free time reading Voltaire, but I am even more persuaded by anyone, regardless of age, who still takes the Constitution seriously. When is it the mission of the school to regulate speech on public property?
But Ken Starr, the same Ken Starr that prosecuted the Monica Lewinsky affair, argued that schools should be given special deference in the area of drugs to move against pro-drug speech -- even messages like Frederick's banner, which are open to varying interpretations.
If Starr is right, could a pro-choice principal limit the speech of pro-life students who wish to pass out leaflets supporting their position? If "Bong hits for Jesus " is wrong it also raises the question: why would civil disobedience be protected under the Constitution?
On its surface, it is easy find this issue as having little value beyond those who are directly involved--one need only be against drugs and for Jesus. But this case is but another example of how our civil liberties have come under attack in recent years with very little public outcry.
Far more people were upset when gas prices escalated than when the attorney general, under oath, questioned the Constitutional relevance of habeas corpus.
However the court decides, I fear that our collective lack of civic understanding is what's on trial. What is required to be an American far outweighs the ability to proclaim it on a bumper sticker or wear a flag on a lapel. Without an accompanying understanding that is rooted in the Constitution, such outwardly displays are but perverted forms of idolatry.
As Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff said to me this week, "The most disadvantaged people in our society are the ones who don't know what the country stands for."
Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist. E-mail him at email@example.com or leave a message at (510) 208-6417.