Education

The People v. Joseph Frederick

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Variety reports (and Jesse Walker notes below) that Paramount Pictures and MTV Films plan to make a movie based on the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" case, in which a Juneau, Alaska, high school student unsuccessfully defended his right to hoist a banner bearing that phrase at an off-campus but school-sanctioned Olympic torch rally. By his own account, the student, Joseph Frederick, held up the banner as a goof, in the hope of getting on TV and, not incidentally, pissing off his school's principal, Deborah Morse, with whom he'd had several run-ins. He succeeded admirably in that second goal, goading Morse into yanking the banner away and crumpling it up. Although a federal appeals court said this heavy-handed censorship violated Frederick's First Amendment rights, the Supreme Court reversed, concluding that the principal's concern about maintaining the school's anti-drug message justified her actions.

While the majority opinion in Morse v. Frederick seemed to be carving out a drug exception to the First Amendment (at least insofar as it applies to students under school supervision), two justices who joined the majority, Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito, signed a concurring opinion saying the decision should not be seen as carte blanche for schools to squelch criticism of current drug policies. Kennedy and Alito's distinction between "speech that can plausibly be interpreted as commenting on any political or social issue"  and "speech that a reasonable observer would interpret as advocating illegal drug use" may be difficult to maintain in practice, because these two categories overlap. Notably, however, their opinion relied on the assumption that Frederick was not trying to communicate anything of worth, which is also what he claimed. At least Larry Flynt was engaging in bona fide political satire when he was sued by Jerry Falwell. Presumably the movie will chronicle Frederick's growing awareness of the First Amendment's importance, as what started as a silly stunt became a brave stand for freedom of expression. Or something like that. If I were writing the script, I think I'd make him a neo-Nazi.

My columns on the case are here and here.

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  1. Dude…. like I think I heard that before….

    😉

  2. Hookahs 4 Ron Paul!

  3. A movie? A whole movie? Ladies and gentlemen, Hollywood has finally scraped its way clean through the barrel and hit concrete.

  4. Drug use is not a political issue? What kind of moronic logic is that? They make it sound like “Bong Hits 4 Pedophilia”, an action which at least has an actual coerced victim.

  5. I think I’d make him a neo-Nazi.

    Nah, that’s so last millennium. Make him an islamo-fascist. In the final scene he blows himself up at a protest of the court decision as a “Booze for Mohamed” banner is unfurled.

  6. i’m kinda on the fence on this one, cause “bong hits 4 jesus” has really no political content, as the creator admitted.

  7. dhex,
    Assuming the “bong hits” message wasn’t political speech, what difference does that make?

    Distinguishing between political and commercial (or just non-political) speech is pretty dubious, in my opinion. If the gov’t truly wants to suppress speech, it can simply say that the speech in question is not political, and thus subject to less protection.

    Take another look at the First Amendment, which draws no such distinction.

  8. i’m kinda on the fence on this one, cause “bong hits 4 jesus” has really no political content, as the creator admitted.

    Rastafarians might disagree with you.

  9. i’m kinda on the fence on this one, cause “bong hits 4 jesus” has really no political content, as the creator admitted.

    But if you take the creator at his word, it doesn’t have a pro-drug message, either. I don’t see how a reasonable observor would interpret this blindingly obvious bit of snark as advocating drug use, any more than “nanna-nanna-na-na” advocates drug use.

  10. I wonder if the soundtrack will feature Orff?

  11. I can see it now, as the guy starts to raise the sign “Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi – O Fortuna” starts to kick in…

  12. Take another look at the First Amendment, which draws no such distinction.

    To take this a step further, it doesn’t distinguish between obscene and non-obscene speech either. In fact it says you can say pretty much whatever you want. The only limitations on it should be when it conflicts with other rights enumerated in the constitution (i.e. FIRE!).

  13. First Amendment or no First Amendment, no one has the right to advocate the breaking of any law.

    an action which at least has an actual coerced victim.

    Society is the victim.

    If Jesus were alive today, he would support this court sescision because of all the harm drugs cause society.

  14. sescision -> I mean descision

  15. First Amendment or no First Amendment, no one has the right to advocate the breaking of any law.

    Oh, where to begin…

    Ah, screw it. It’s too early on Monday, and if you really believe such earwax you’re beyond help. So you’re quite right; the law is the law, and if somebody writes a law it must be followed, constitutional rights be damned.

    Incidentally, be sure not to whistle past a barber shop on Tuesdays. It’s against the law somewhere, you know.

  16. If Jesus were alive today…

    If Jesus were alive today, he would be taking a whip to the preacher-politicians, driving them out of the temple.

  17. First Amendment or no First Amendment, no one has the right to advocate the breaking of any law.

    Tell that to Henry David Thoreau.

    A movie? A whole movie? Ladies and gentlemen, Hollywood has finally scraped its way clean through the barrel and hit concrete.

    Yes. To reinforce this, please check out the new Get Smart movie…

  18. If Jesus were alive today, he would be taking a whip to the preacher-politicians, driving them out of the temple.

    Actually, he’d probably be very confused and wildly looking around for someone who could speak Classical Greek or Aramaic.

  19. A movie? A whole movie? Ladies and gentlemen, Hollywood has finally scraped its way clean through the barrel and hit concrete.

    At this point, I think they’ve also gnawed through the concrete somehow.

  20. If Jesus were alive today, he would be taking a whip to the preacher-politicians, driving them out of the temple.

    Actually, he’d probably be very confused and wildly looking around for someone who could speak Classical Greek or Aramaic.

    No, he’d be pounding on a stone slap, screaming “help, somebody get me out of this tomb! Can anyone hear me? Help!”

  21. they’ve also gnawed through the concrete somehow

    Oh my God! It’s…it’s…the China Syndrome!*

    *Remake due in theatres April ’08

  22. No, he’d be pounding on a stone slap, screaming “help, somebody get me out of this tomb! Can anyone hear me? Help!”

    Didn’t you get the memo? He already left the tomb and got resurrectimofied.

  23. First Amendment or no First Amendment, no one has the right to advocate the breaking of any law.

    Sure they do. Google up “civil disobedience” sometime.

  24. Oops. Hit submit too quick.

    Also, I see no such exception to the First Amendment in the text of the First Amendment itself.

  25. The whole problem with this is that bongs aren’t just for smoking illegal drugs. Every head shop I’ve ever been in makes it clear bongs are solely for tobacco and other legal herbs. If you even mention illegal drugs they will throw you out.

  26. Assuming the “bong hits” message wasn’t political speech, what difference does that make?

    uh guys he’s a high school student. tinker tinker little bell c’mon bruhs.

    now yeah i think it’s a bit dubious to say a school sponsored event carries the same kind of environmental restrictions as an assembly or what have you, but it’s not really the same thing.

    what i’m saying is that he’s not a free speech martyr, though i appreciate his jackassery in the face of the tedium that is high school.

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