“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.
 

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11 Comments on ““Bong Hits For Jesus””

  1. sailer Says:

    I agree completely freedom is a wonderful thing. The same argument can be made about abortion. Once the Governement asserts it’s complete control over reproductive choices some future government can use that control as precedent to force women to have abortions. It isn’t far fetched that with embryo genetic testing that the government decide that it’s in the baby’s best interest to be euthanised. I am prochoice(pro freedaom) not because I like abortions but because I feel that government shouldn’t intrude into people’s private lives. What could possibly be more private than a women’s relationship with the fetus that she has in her uterus?? Government is always seeking to intrude completely into every facet of our lives. There are always good reasons to restrict or remove freedoms. Choice is a terrible thing when you should always do the right thing. Choice allows the possiblity to error. But I always want to know who decided what is the right thing to do in any given situation.

  2. Mark Says:

    I’m not clear on all the facts of this case. Apparently this happened during school hours, but the students had been allowed to leave school to see the torch passing. The student in question was off school property, but was he still considered to be attending school? Isn’t it pretty clear that the school administration could control such a display in, for example, the school gymnasium? But under what circumstances can they control such behavior while a student is off school property? Would that power extend to his home? If so, that would mean that the student could be disciplined for engaging in behavior that his parents allow but which a school administrator doesn’t like.

  3. JPW Says:

    Wheeler, you stated, “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…”

    Have you done a post on what caused the switch to flip? If so could you put up the link. If not, would you be willing to discuss what caused the switch to flip.

    This is something that I’m very interested in and, being a nontheist (atheist, what ever the hell folks want to call it these days… non believer) I couldn’t agree more that “religious folks are better served by civil libertarians than by authoritarian conservatives.”

  4. wheeler Says:

    mark,

    i think your questions are one of the strangest things about this case.

    the argument you mention – that this was a school sponsored activity like a pep-rally -seems to me to be much more narrow and defensible than the one the school is actually using. but, aparently, they never made it at the district court or circuit court level. i think they might have thrown it into their scotus brief as an alternative, but their main position is the one i described in the post.

    jpw,

    it would probably require a book. one i’m not silly enough to imagine anyone would read.

  5. JPW Says:

    “….one i’m not silly enough to imagine anyone would read.”

    Don’t fear you’re inner silliness, Wheeler. A book like that would be a damn hot commodity right now.

    🙂

  6. Dan Says:

    I feel your pain, wheeler. I used to be a crazy conservative (and even Christian) myself. I would probably read your book for comparison with my own journey.

  7. Bill Taylor Says:

    I was in a discussion on another message board last week discussing the Mormon student in California that was disciplined by her school for using the phrase “That’s so gay.” Another poster said that the First Amendment doesn’t apply to public schools. Can anyone shed some light on this for me?

  8. sailer Says:

    George Bush made me an atheist. When he came out saying that god wanted him to be president it was more than I could stomach. Jimmy carter made me believe for several years. The quiet way he practices his faith was an inspiration. The endless stream of suicide bombers has to shake anyone’s faith. Pat Robertson,Jimmy Swaggert ,Oral Roberts ,the pope and Osama Binladen all claiming to know god’s will have to make one think. Even our own civil war with both sides praying to god for victory makes one think. Our world is largely a product of human intent, we can’t blame or credit god or satan for the world’s condition. I believe that most people want to do good things. Deciding what is good should be a rational decision guided by rational ethics. Claiming that anything is god’s will is not rational.
    But whatever we believe a secular government is a good thing. I think that we have religous freedom in this country because the various religions didn’t want to be dominated by any particular religion. Of course religous freedom didn’t stop the protestants from driving the Mormons into Utah. Once abortion is outlawed and gays are back in their closet the various religions will go back to attacking each other. Hopefully we will have the freedom of speech to talk about it all. In many Muslim countries trying to get someone to become a Christian is punishable by death as is converting. Freedom of speech is the first line of defense against despots and totalitarian governments.

  9. wheeler Says:

    “Can anyone shed some light on this for me?”

    that’s what this scotus case is about. the first amendment does apply to public schools. the question is how. under the school’s argument, it would be perfectly fine to penalize a student for saying something like “that’s so gay.” under the student’s argument – and the law as it now stands – that would almost certainly be protected speech.

  10. Bill Taylor Says:

    “hat’s what this scotus case is about. the first amendment does apply to public schools. the question is how. under the school’s argument, it would be perfectly fine to penalize a student for saying something like “that’s so gay.” under the student’s argument – and the law as it now stands – that would almost certainly be protected speech.”

    That’s what I thought. However, some of the other posters couldn’t believe that I didn’t know that the First Amendment didn’t apply to “hate speech” in schools. However, they didn’t think that the comments made to the Mormon student like “How many moms do you have?” were “hate speech” and therefore WERE protected by the First.????


  11. […] was the message, you ask? It should not matter, like I said here, schools ought have no power whatsoever to regulate the content of student speech absent some […]


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