Student’s drug message free speech; school suspension not valid, unfair

Kenneth Starr is trying to “Tinker” with the law.According to an argument transcript from March 19, Starr has repeatedly quoted the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969) as a defense for school authorities to place limits on non-political student speech that is considered to be disruptive and goes against school policy.

Starr, who is representing Deborah Morse, principal of Juneau-Douglas High School, in Morse v. Frederick (also known as the “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” case) used the 1969 case in his arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The rule of the Court as articulated in Tinker is that there is, in fact, a right to political speech subject to disruption, requirements that the speech not be disruptive,” Starr said.

The Tinker case involved a decision to allow students to wear black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War and has been a cornerstone in law regarding free speech rights of students.

The case Morse v. Frederick, which is currently in review by the U.S. Supreme Court, began in 2002 when Joseph Frederick filed a lawsuit against Morse after he was suspended for holding up a “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” banner across the street from his high school during the Olympic Torch Relay.

Frederick’s camp argues that the suspension was an unjustified suppression of his First Amendment right to free speech because he was acting as a private citizen in a public place, and he was neither on school grounds nor under the authority of the school.

Morse’s side argues that because students were released from classes during a regular school day to watch the Olympic Torch Relay, it was a school event where she had the authority to act against students who were trying to undermine the school’s anti-drug message.

Linda Campbell, an adjunct instructor of media law, said, “It’s hard for me to see how this student’s actions undermine the educational mission to the extent that they could suppress his message, silly as it was.”

Campbell also said that school officials do have a certain amount of power to promote anti-drug messages and maintain order at school-sponsored functions, but students had been released from school, Frederick was in a public place off-campus and though his message contained a drug reference, his banner did not tell students to take drugs.

But what it really comes down to is the fact that Frederick’s message and actions were nonviolent and non-aggressive.

He didn’t yell at fellow students to break the law and to take bong hits. He did not break the law by lighting up a joint, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out. He didn’t scream at school authorities and even maintained his cool while being suspended long enough to quote Thomas Jefferson.

This means that he was not impinging on the rights of others, and because Frederick was not in a classroom or even on school property, he could not have been causing a substantial interference with school discipline, which are two things the Tinker case says must be proven before justifying the suppression of an act of free speech.

A decision on this case is expected by June, but argument transcripts are freely available on the Supreme Court’s Web site.

Talia Sampson is a junior news-editorial journalism and international relations major from Moorpark, Calif.