On June 25, 2007, the Supreme Court ruled in Morse v. Frederick, 551 U.S. ____ (2007) that Deborah Morse, a high school principal in Alaska, did not violate the free speech rights of one of her students, Joseph Frederick, when she confiscated a 14-foot banner that Frederick displayed at a school event, which banner bore the phrase, “BONG HiTS 4 JESUS,” and when she suspended Frederick for not complying with her directive to take the banner down.
This case was another 5-4 ruling, with newly appointed Justices Roberts and Alito on the side of the majority.
The key fact in this case is WHERE the speech event occurred. In most places and circumstances, such speech is fully protected by the First Amendment. But certain limitations kick-in when it occurs as a part of a school event.
The dissenting Justices (Stevens, Souter, Ginsberg and Breyer) complain that the suspension of Frederick was unfair; that the displaying of the banner was not disruptive; that the phrase did not encourage the use of drugs; and that Frederick had no intent to promote the use of drugs—that he was just trying to get attention. But the unique situation of the public school setting justifies the actions taken by Principal Morse in this case. The majority got it right.
The situation would be different if the student were disciplined for something he had said in an in-class discussion about drugs or politics or some other relevant issue. But when a student seeks to use a school forum to make his own speech, for his own purposes, his speech rights are limited because he has no right disrupt the school program or to use the other students to advance his agenda. And “disruption” should be broadly defined, and the school authorities should be given discretion to make the spur-of-the-moment judgments that they feel are best for the school. And their discretion should not be subject to review unless it is clearly erroneous.
While I, for one, disapprove of some of the public school curriculum that my children are and have been subjected to, nevertheless, the greatest problem facing our public schools today is the lack of discipline of the students and the lack of control that teachers have over their students. The increased freedom of students has led to significant increases in disrespect in classrooms; and this has in turn had a serious, deleterious effect on our public education system. If the school system must subject itself to recognize and showcase every student who decides to exercise his freedom of speech rights, this would lead to chaos.The Supreme Court’s ruling in Morse v. Frederick is a step in the right direction, to help the schools regain control so that the education environment can be better for all students.
Now, having shared my social commentary on Morse v. Frederick, let me say a little bit about the legal issues involved. The guiding case with respect to this school speech issue is Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School Dist., 393 U.S. 503 (1969). In that case the Supreme Court allowed students to wear black arm bands in protest of the Vietnam War. The Court ruled that unless the speech [the wearing of the armbands] would “materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school,” then the conduct was protected under the First Amendment. In that case the students’ conduct prevailed over the school administrators. But in the case of the “BONG HiTS 4 JESUS” banner, the principal said that the banner was taken down because she thought that it promoted illegal drug use. The student denied that this was his intent, and a close analysis of the wording yields uncertainty about what the phrase means. But the majority of the Supreme Court held (and correctly, in my opinion) that the principal’s “on the spot” action to confiscate the banner was a “reasonable” action for her to take in controlling student expressions that could contribute to dangerous conduct (Roberts, C.J., slip opinion, at p. 15).
It was important that this case be decided in favor of the school administrator for one, big reason: The school should not be made a stage for national debate on current social/political issues. A student should not be empowered to take over the education system at will by asserting a constitutional right at any time he chooses. To allow a student to assert a constitutional right at any time he/she chooses would be to sew the seeds of disruption in the school. In fact, this disruptive effect has already been in operation for over 30 years. It has contributed to a decline I the discipline and respect of students and to an increase in the widespread disrespect that now plagues public schools.