Principals of Censorship

Student speech and the drug war


When Joseph Frederick, a Juneau, Alaska, high school senior, unrolled a 14-foot banner proclaiming "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" at a 2002 Winter Olympics torch relay rally near his school, he was trying to attract TV cameras. Instead he caught the eye of Deborah Morse, the school's principal, who crossed the street, grabbed the banner, crumpled it up, and suspended Frederick for 10 days.

Morse was offended not by the banner's religious content but by what she took to be its pro-marijuana message. When the U.S. Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of Morse's heavy-handed censorship in March, it seemed a majority might be prepared to accept her interpretation and obligingly carve out a "drug exception" to the First Amendment.

"Illegal drugs and the glorification of the drug culture are profoundly serious problems for our nation," former Solicitor General Kenneth Starr told the Court on behalf of Morse and the school district. Therefore, he implied, a First Amendment that protects a student's right to wear a black armband in protest of the Vietnam War might not protect his right to wear a "Legalize It" T-shirt in protest of the war on drugs.

Frederick's lawyer asserted that the student's banner, which he displayed at a privately sponsored, off-campus event for which students were released from class but to which he came directly from home, did not disrupt school. Justice Anthony Kennedy, a swing vote whom The New York Times alarmingly described as "perhaps the most speech-protective of the justices," disagreed, saying the banner was "completely disruptive" because it contradicted "the message…the school wanted to promote."

The Bush administration, siding with the school district, endorsed a similarly broad understanding of disruption, saying a school "does not have to tolerate a message that is inconsistent" with its educational mission. Justice Samuel Alito called this argument "very, very disturbing," noting that schools could suppress a wide range of speech "under the banner of getting rid of speech that's inconsistent with educational missions"—a banner even vaguer than "Bong Hits 4 Jesus."