One of the most inane attempts at restricting speech in recent memory goes before the Supreme Court today: the dread case of "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" v. stuffed-shirt school administrators direct from Central Casting (aided and abetted by the Bush Justice Department).
Our story thus far, as the Cincinnati Enquirer editorializes:
A federal case involving an Alaska student's free-speech rights touches on issues that hit close to home here. As the New York Times reported this weekend, Joseph Frederick unfurled a banner reading "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" during an Olympic torch procession in 2002.
It was off school property, though during school time, and principal Deborah Morse ordered him to take it down. He refused, she tore it down and suspended him, so he sued. Morse objected to the sign's apparent advocacy for marijuana. Frederick said it was simply taken from a snowboard slogan to be "meaningless and funny" for the TV cameras—a typical teen prank.
This seems to be much ado about very little, but it has reached the Supreme Court as a test of previous court rulings over the rights of school administrators to limit student speech when it conflicts with the school's "educational mission." Those principles were in play in our area with a recent flap over an article in a student publication at Princeton High School critical of the school's football program.
Whether you think a student ought to or should be allowed to advocate drugs, even in apparent jest and even away from school, is one thing. But the government here is arguing something far more sweeping—that administrators have the right to ban virtually any speech that conflicts with the "educational mission," and that they have the right to define that mission as they wish.
As with too many First Amendment issues, the Bush administration is arguing to restrict rights. The so-called "religious right" supports Frederick, despite his sign's irreverent "Jesus" reference, because they are concerned, as counsel Jay Alan Sekulow writes, that public schools "face a constant temptation to impose a suffocating blanket of political correctness upon the educational atmosphere."
That's a valid concern. Schools pay lip service to diversity, but that doesn't always extend to diversity of opinion or ideology. Education is not homogenization.
Regardless of how the case actually plays out, this much is a fait accompli: When you're lost the Cincinnati Enquirer, as reliably anti-hippie and non-prescription drug use as any paper in the country, on this issue, you've lost heartland America.