“Bong Hits For Jesus”
As you are all well aware by now, I’m sure, Scotus heard oral arguments yesterday in this case:
Joseph Frederick, was an 18-year-old senior in 2002 when the torch for the Winter Olympics was scheduled to pass in front of [his] high school. Frederick was standing on a public street as the TV cameras came into range. He and several other students then unfurled the 14-foot banner that said, “Bong Hits 4 Jesus.”
The school’s principal, Deborah Morse, ripped it away from the students and sent Frederick to the office. She planned to suspend him for five days, but when he invoked Thomas Jefferson and the 1st Amendment, she doubled the suspension to 10 days.
Frederick sued, alleging Morse had violated his constitutional rights.
I used to be one of those Roy Moore types who wanted the government to enforce my religious beliefs. As you all know, though, that is no longer my view, and this case is a good example of why I think the long term interests of religious folks are better served by civil libertarians than by authoritarian conservatives.
The student’s argument is simple: Schools have no authority to regulate the content of student speech. Here’s the school’s argument, one supported by George Bush, and probably by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Scalia:
The Solicitor General, along with the school, has argued that primary and secondary public schools ought to be permitted to engage in viewpoint discrimination and restrict student speech whenever the “message” conveyed by the student is “inconsistent with the school’s basic educational mission.” So, for instance, on this view a school could discipline a student for engaging in any advocacy of unlawful conduct, or expression of a message inconsistent with the teachings of the school itself, at least where such teachings are “central to a school’s basic educational mission.”
It does not take much imagination to realize what incredible powers that rule would give to schools. That power would have led to a resolution in this case that most religious folks would applaud: Silencing what appears to be a pro-drug or anti-religion message. Pope Benedict, for one, would certainly side with the school and President Bush, given his view that freedom of speech does not protect statements that insult a person’s religious beliefs.
But that power to silence dissident speech would extend far beyond this particular case, as many conservative religious folks have realized:
While it is hardly surprising to find the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Coalition Against Censorship on Mr. Frederick’s side, it is the array of briefs from organizations that litigate and speak on behalf of the religious right that has lifted Morse v. Frederick out of the realm of the ordinary.
The groups include the American Center for Law and Justice, founded by the Rev. Pat Robertson; the Christian Legal Society; the Alliance Defense Fund, an organization based in Arizona that describes its mission as “defending the right to hear and speak the Truth”; the Rutherford Institute, which has participated in many religion cases before the court; and Liberty Legal Institute, a nonprofit law firm “dedicated to the preservation of First Amendment rights and religious freedom.” . . .
The briefs from the conservative religious organizations depict the school environment as an ideological battleground. The Christian Legal Society asserts that its law school chapters “have endured a relentless assault by law schools intolerant of their unpopular perspective on the morality of homosexual conduct or the relevance of religious belief.”
The American Center for Law and Justice brief, filed by its chief counsel, Jay Alan Sekulow, warns that public schools “face a constant temptation to impose a suffocating blanket of political correctness upon the educational atmosphere.”
The groups are worried because a school could very easily define its “educational mission” as something involving “tolerance,” “inclusion,” “openness,” or some other meaningless buzz word, and then use that mission statement to silence, for example, a student who wears a shirt condemning homosexuality.
We would probably have the opposite problem in Alabama. What do you suppose someone like Gerald Allen or Roy Moore would come up with for a school’s educational mission?
The point is that once the authorities have the right to impose orthodoxy from above, whether you enjoy freedom or not depends on who those authorities are. There is no guarantee they will always be folks who see the world the same way you do.
On one day it would be hateful and punishable to argue against gay marriage, on the next day students who supported marriage equality would be suspended. Maybe this semester it is fine and dandy to question the wisdom of the drug war, but next semester doing so earns the student a three day vacation. In one town, students could not wear shirts saying things like “Turn or Burn,” while another municipality forbids proclamations like “Jesus saves, he shoots, he scores!”
Freedom should not blow with the wind. In my view, it’s much better to strictly limit the authority of state actors to regulate speech, even in schools. That way no matter who is in charge, folks can say whatever the heck they want to say. If I can’t punish people for disagreeing with me, than no-one can punish me for disagreeing with them.