Monday, June 25, 2007

At least the neocon wingnuts can't claim SCOTUS is too "liberal" now

Word is now getting around that the Supreme Court made the wrong decision regarding sudent free speech rights, when, this morning, they decided against a student who had sued his high school for suspending him over displaying a farcical banner reading "Bong Hits 4 Jesus". Evidently even the hint that a student might be promoting drug use, even when the display is quite obviously a stupid joke, is enough that a principal can justifiably trample over that student's expression.

"It was reasonable for (the principal) to conclude that the banner promoted illegal drug use — and that failing to act would send a powerful message to the students in her charge," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court's majority.

Please. "Reasonable"? Only if you have two feet of a broom handle lodged up your colon. That the banner is an admittedly juvenile and stupid expression of humor ought to be obvious. There's not even any context for the statement. To take it seriously prompts the question: is "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" advocating behavior to be enjoyed on general principles, or is it advertising a school club? No, it was just a teenager writing something dorky that other teenagers would find amusing on a banner, just to get a reaction. That may be immature, but should it be a forbidden form of expression?

One ought to be wary of slippery slope fallacies, but I can see this opening the door to other restrictions on student speech simply based on someone even thinking there may be the possibility that a student has just said something promoting an illegal act. Over the years there have been many attempts to ban certain books from school libraries, ban certain clubs (yes, I do happen to think those "pray around the flagpole" groups have a right to do their thing, as long as it isn't sponsored by the school, and they only meet before or after school hours), and what have you. This decision will more than likely lead to more and more students having to watch what they say for fear of Big Brother. What kind of lesson is that to teach budding young citizens of a "free" country?


  1. I just finished reading the entire opinion, including the dissenting and partial dissenting...there are some great quotes in there, and it's not a purely simple issue.

    I think that while I agree with the dissenters, I'm also in agreement with Breyer - to some degree.

    They should have ruled in favor of the principal (as they did) but completely ignored free speech issues. The school could have been justified in their actions without any concerns regarding free speech - but now that they've ruled on free speech grounds, they may have done more harm than good.

  2. I remember this story from a few months back, and as I recall, one of the issues was that he wasn't on school property at the time, yet the school was attempting to punish him for his actions.

    You've read the opinion; could you elaborate on this?

  3. Whether or not he was on school property is irrelevant, he was at a school function. Consider it like a field trip - if you take students to a museum, they are still under the authority of the school.

    One semi-easy way to view this is: if he had been injured, would the school have been responsible? In most cases, schools act in loco parentis, and as long as they have some liability, they must have some authority.

    It's a crappy day for the First Amendment (they should have just stayed out of that zone), but I'm far more concerned about the FFrF ruling that seems to take a steaming shit on the idea that this is a government of the people, by the people and for the people - when taxpayers can't have standing to object to mandates from the executive branch.

  4. I was unaware that he was attending a school function. The first time I readabout it that fact was omitted; it sounded like he was at a press-covered parade and decided to stir stuff up a bit, and the school punished him based on his out-of-school actions.

    I certainly agree that, while at a school function such inappropriate things are no more allowable than swasitkas, KKK robes, or anything else that might disturb the learning environment.

  5. >Whether or not he was on school property is irrelevant, he was at a school function.

    I guess I question the severity of the punishment. When I was in high school, some kids wore shirts that were "banned"; administrators or teachers just told them "turn it inside out"--and they wore it inside out the rest of the day. Problem solved.

    I don't think the court was looking at what is a reasonable response to such a thing--but I think confiscating the banner and disposing of it--maybe a note home to the parents...?

  6. Tracie,

    I agree. As it turns out, here's the basics of what happened...

    The school goes out to view the running of the olympic torch.

    There are TV cameras everywhere.

    Some students decide that a great way to get on TV would be to create a 14-foot banner with an absurd message on it.

    The unfurl their banner, the princpal spots it, runs across the street and tries to confiscate it.

    One of the students refuses to give up the banner.

    After a short confrontation, the principal confiscates it and then later calls the student in to suspend them for a day.

    The student is asked to name the other students who participated...he refuses.

    His suspension is increased to 10 days.

    I really don't consider any of this to be an overreaction, and neither did any of the justices. The principal was (mostly) in the right, took reasonable actions based school policies and acted quickly, and in the best interest of the school - considering the cameras.

    The court could have just addressed those issues and been done with it.

    Instead, they went WAY too far. They (some of them) agreed with the student - that this was a free speech issue (and it need not have been), and then ruled against him... putting free speech at risk for all students. (Though this opinion is unlikely to be broadly cited in free speech cases).

    I love First Amendment cases and there are some brilliant comments in the opinions. Not surprisingly, these brilliances do not come from Roberts, Alito or Scalia.

    I did find myself agreeing with some comments from Justice Thomas, but Breyer and the dissent from Stevens were exceptional.

  7. Matt;
    It was NOT a school function.

  8. If the student put up a struggle, then the principal was justified in something more than taking the banner away, I agree. None of the kids with t-shirts at my school ever refused to turn them inside out, but i imagine if they had, there would have been more punishment.

    Anonymous: Can you provide a citation? Based on the descriptions, this does sound like a school field trip--and not like the principal just happened to be at an event where some of his students had also coincidentally showed up. But I haven't checked any of this out myself. A link supporting your statement would be helpful. Thanks!

  9. Well, now I'm in a pickle...should I trust:

    - An assertion from an anonymous poster


    - the summary in the opinion, the testimony transcripts, a dozen news reports, the fact that he was suspended and the suspension was repeatedly upheld - and wasn't challegned (at all) on the grounds that he wasn't under the authority of the school at the time...

    Now, if you want to offer some support for what you're claiming, fine. If not, I fail to see why I should accept your claim.

  10. Here's a link where I first read about this.

    It sounds to me as though the students were dismissed from school for the day (the idea being that they could take advantage of this "free day" by attending the parade)and could use the time any way they chose.
    Not on school property.
    Not a school function.


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