Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Monday, June 25, 2007

Bong Hits 4 Jesus...

In a 5-4 ruling (straight conservative vs. liberal/moderate split) the Supreme Court upheld the suspension of a student who unfurled a banner proclaiming "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" while standing on school property, watching the Olympic torch relay go by. Here is what I understand.

1. All justices agreed that, under normal circumstances, the banner is "unquestionably" protected free speech.

2. Even the dissenters conceded that, "the pressing need to deter drug use supports [the school's] rule prohibiting willful conduct that expressly 'advocates the use of substances that are illegal to minors.'"

3. The dispute was that the majority felt the banner could reasonably be interpreted to be supporting drug use, while the minority held that (a) "speech that can be reasonably interpreted as supporting" drug use is not the same as "conduct expressly advocating" drug use, and (b) the obscure phrase was not intended to promote drug use anyhow.

Now I can see how an un-hip, out-of-touch high school principal (is there any other kind?) might assume the banner advocated drug use. I can see how parents might think so as well. But in the context of the situation, where the students waited for the cameras to come by before they unrolled it, it was just a media stunt, never intended to persuade anyone to use drugs. The student always maintained it was just a phrase he got from a snowboarding sticker that he thought would be cool to put on a big banner. The student said he was trying to push the envelope of free speech and mock the heavy-handed administrators.

It was dumb to take down the banner--and it also proved the student's point about their overly rigid rules--but if that were all the administrators had done, I would have thought, oh well, bad call, but that's life. But the principal also suspended the students for 5 days and then tacked on an additional 5 days when they refused to name other people who helped make the banner. That kind of intimidation is wrong.

It should not be the student's burden to refrain from questionable speech just in case it might be interpreted by grown-ups as crossing the line. Students should be encouraged to speak freely! The burden falls to the administrators to step in when--and only when--they believe it has definitely crossed the line. Err, if err we must, on the side of freedom. I am curious to know what the free speech gurus on this site think of that.


Raised By Republicans said...

I wonder if this would even have been an issue if the banner had read "Bong Hits for Commies."

I think the clear undertext is that criticizing Christianity is not protected speach.

Anonymous said...

Having read through the decision, I have a lot of trouble with the premise that this was a school-sponsored activity. Is the 4th of July parade now a school-sponsored activity if summer school kids are dismissed from class and encouraged to go?

Being overly authoritarian and intimidating isn't a way to encourage learning. I suppose you can get standardized test scores that way, but independent thought isn't encouraged when students are terrified that every remark could be construed as some kind of attack on "moral values."

I had some good teachers in high school, especially the one who pretty much threw out the AP US History book and taught out of Howard Zinn. But I had plenty who would have gleefully tried to suspend a bright, mouthy kid who decided to talk or write about something interesting or controversial. Those teachers and administrators will have even more power thanks to this decision.

-Seventh Sister

Dr. Strangelove said...

7th Sister is when she talks about administrators having "even more power" thanks to this decision. Reading it again, I realize she hit the nail on the head. That's what bugged me so much about this: the administrators were basically punishing students for bucking authority. The students raised a sign that that the administrators did not like--and which the students knew they would not--and the administrators punished them for stepping out of line.

7th Sister is right that authoritarianism and intimidation is no way to educate people. Naturally, the Roberts Court has no problem with that. Hell, they probably imagine that teaching "respect for authority" is more important than learning to "question authority." And isn't that one of the fundamental divides between conservatives and liberals?

The Law Talking Guy said...

I concur with Seventh Sister, and not just for the obvious reasons. This is a case of good law and bad facts. The Court's principle, that the school can exercise control at school events, is not that terrifying. The idea that this was such an event is, but they twisted the facts to reach that conclusion. Sometimes that happens when the desire is to reach a certain ideological result, facts be damned.

The other issue is that conservatives have no sense of humor. We already know that by the laws they pass expressly forbidding humor in airport security lines. They just didn't get that "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" was dada-ist in inspiration, not a pro-drug message at all.

You can replace all of Thomas' opinion, by the way, with the word "whippersnappers."