Editorial - Students' Right To Free Speech

April 2007

The Supreme Court heard arguments yesterday in a case that has attracted attention mainly because of its eccentric story line: An Alaska student was suspended from high school in 2002 after he unfurled a banner reading “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” while the Olympic torch passed by. But the case raises important issues of freedom of expression and student censorship that go far beyond the words on that banner. The court should affirm the appeals court’s well-reasoned decision that when the school punished the student it violated his First Amendment rights.

Joseph Frederick and his fellow students were allowed to leave the grounds of Juneau-Douglas High School so they could watch the Olympic torch pass nearby. When the cameras began to roll, he unfurled his banner, which he says was meant to be funny and get him on television. The principal took it from him, and suspended him for 10 days.

Mr. Frederick says the suspension violated his rights. The school board insists the principal had the right to confiscate the banner and punish the student because the language undermined its teachings about the dangers of illegal drugs. The San Francisco-based United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled for Mr. Frederick, citing the 1969 case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which held that students have the right to free speech, which can be suppressed only when the speech disrupts school activities.

The Bush administration joined the school district in arguing that schools have broad authority to limit talk about drugs because of the importance of keeping drugs away from young people. But if schools can limit speech on any subject deemed to be important, students could soon be punished for talking about the war on terror or the war in Iraq because the government also considers those subjects important.

Some school administrators would no doubt use their power to clamp down on conservative speech while others would clamp down on liberal speech. A school that values diversity could punish students who criticize affirmative action, while a more conservative school could ban students from taking outspoken positions about global warming. Religious groups have joined civil libertarians in backing Mr. Frederick because they fear schools will punish students who talk about their religious beliefs.

If the Supreme Court wants to dodge the free-speech-in-school issues, it could rule that the off-campus Olympic torch event was not a formal school activity — and that the principal had no right to limit anyone’s free speech there. That would not harm students’ free speech rights, but it would also do little to affirm them. The court should go further, and rule that Mr. Frederick’s rights were infringed. Students do not have the right to interfere substantially with school activities, but Mr. Frederick did not do that. The court should use this case to reaffirm Tinker’s famous pronouncement that students do not shed their right to free speech “at the schoolhouse gate.”