On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled narrowly in favor of the school in Alaska that suspended a student for holding up a banner that said "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" at a school-sponsored event. The case has been widely discussed in the press as a test of the First Amendment rights of students, but I think that is a mistake.
If the student (Joseph Frederick) had won, the principal who disciplined him would have been subject to a lawsuit and possibly heavy personal damages. Having watched the evolution of American schools over many years in my capacity as a historian; having seen the adults lose their authority in case after case that is adjudicated; having seen the negative effects of this loss of adult authority in school, I was relieved that the Supreme Court decided that the principal rightly exercised her authority in this instance.
If Joseph Frederick had won this case, no principal or teacher would have ever again dared to discipline a student without fear of legal action and fear of great financial penalties. This would have undermined, if not entirely destroyed, the ability of adults to run safe and orderly schools anywhere in this nation.
Many years ago, Gerald Grant of Syracuse University wrote a brilliant book titled The World We Created at Hamilton High, showing the chaos and disruption that followed the collapse of adult authority in a pseudonymous high school in upstate New York in the late 1960s.
Authority does not depend on the ability to punish kids for misbehavior, but on the ability to set reasonable rules and fairly enforce them for all. If principals cannot uphold the rules of their schools, then all our schools will be in trouble.
Mr. Frederick can hold up his banner at parades, in public parks, on his lawn, or anywhere else that he chooses. But he can't do it at a school-sponsored event. He should of course have his right to free speech, as he continues to have. And the principal of his school -- and thousands of other schools -- should continue to have the ability to maintain a school where everyone lives by the same rules.
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