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ISSUE 120 VOL 16 PUBLISHED 3/23/2007

'Bong' sparks debate

By Peter Farrell
Variety Editor

Friday, March 23, 2007

The phrase “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” does not make much sense. Why bong hits? Does Jesus need bong hits? Do people need to take bong hits for Jesus? Is it a radical religious statement that dramatically redefines a Christian’s relation to Christ? Sola chiba instead of sola scriptura? Bud over the Bible?

Unfortunately, Joseph Frederick, the author of that nonsensical phrase, doesn't really care whether or not salvation depends on the sticky-icky. Back in 2002, when Frederick was a high school senior, he simply wanted to test the limits of his free speech. So when the Olympic Torch rolled through Juneau, Alaska – a school-sanctioned event that took place off of school property – he waited for the television cameras before unfurling a 14-foot banner that proclaimed “Bong Hits 4 Jesus.”

Now, five years later, the United States Supreme Court will decide the most important free speech case of the past four decades or so based upon a phrase that, according to Frederick, means absolutely nothing. Frederick’s statement, identified by his principal, Katherine Morse, as promoting illegal drug use, garnered him a 10-day suspension. Frederick used that suspension as the legal basis for suing Morse for violating his First Amendment rights.

A lower court in Alaska upheld the principal’s suspension, but then one of those crazy San Francisco appellate courts ruled in Frederick's favor, and Kenneth Starr – yes, of Monica Lewinsky fame – took on the case for the school pro bono. (Starr, employed at the Los Angeles-based firm of Kirkland & Ellis, refuses to take cases that don't relate to blow jobs or to bongs.)

The circus surrounding Morse v. Frederick belies the difficulty the Court faces in determining the relationship between school, student and First Amendment. The last time the Court addressed the issue, it ruled that while students don’t lose free speech at school, there are also limitations: speech acts cannot disrupt the “basic educational mission” of the institution they attend.

At the beginning of deliberations this week, Starr argued that Frederick’s sign restricted the school’s ability to advance its educational mission, which included limiting messages that advocate illegal drug use. But what exactly was Frederick advocating? His message is incoherent; he admits he was only trying to provoke the school administration.

Provocation clearly has its limits, especially in a learning environment, and the issue is far from clear cut. On Monday, the Court seemed to intimate that it would rule in Frederick’s favor. He was off school property, and though the event was school-sanctioned, he technically hadn’t attended school that day. It’s hard to argue that Frederick significantly disrupted the school’s educational message, let alone the people milling about the public sidewalk he was standing on.

But the legal technicalities that will frame Morse v. Frederick should not distract from the danger inherent in limiting student speech. Schools can define their “educational mission” broadly and, consequently, the Court must vigilantly ensure that the scope of suppressible speech acts is narrow. If the Court decides in favor of Morse, it will sanction schools restricting speech and disciplining “violators” for being disruptive.

Recently the Justice Department has added itself to the list of American institutions in crisis. The Court can use the Frederick case, absurd as it may be, to reassert itself by ensuring once again that students have the right to engage in speech acts that are provocative and political. “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” might not mean anything right now, but it’s about to become the battlecry for free speech advocates everywhere.

Variety Editor Peter Farrell is a junior from Eden Prairie, Minn. He majors in English and in history.

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