Court upholds student speech rights - Ruling favors teen suspended for sign: 'Bong Hits 4 Jesus'
A high school principal violated a student's constitutional rights by suspending him for 10 days after the boy held up a banner reading "Bong Hits 4 Jesus'' at a televised parade near campus, a federal appeals court has ruled.
The principal said the teenager's words -- which the boy later called a meaningless phrase meant only to attract the cameras at the parade in Juneau, Alaska -- were a pro-marijuana message that clashed with school district policy. Regardless, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said Friday, the student had a right to express himself as long as he didn't disrupt the school or its educational mission.
"A school cannot censor or punish students' speech merely because the students advocate a position contrary to government policy,'' Judge Andrew Kleinfeld said in the 3-0 ruling.
He said the U.S. Supreme Court established that principle in 1969 when it ruled that a 15-year-old Iowa girl had the right to wear a black armband in class to protest the Vietnam War. Later rulings have upheld administrators' authority to censor school newspapers or punish students for lewd or disruptive remarks without undermining their basic right of free speech, Kleinfeld said.
The student's lawyer, Douglas Mertz, said the ruling applied beyond schools to any government official who tries to "punish citizens for making expressions of free speech with which the official disagrees.''
David Crosby, lawyer for the principal and the Juneau school board, declined to comment, saying he hadn't read the ruling.
The case arose in January 2002, when a torch relay for the Winter Olympics was passing by the Juneau-Douglas High School campus and students were let out of class to watch it.
Joseph Frederick, an 18-year-old senior, stood on the sidewalk and unfurled his banner as TV camera crews approached. Principal Deborah Morse crossed the street, grabbed and crumpled the banner, and told Frederick he was suspended for promoting illegal drug use.
After appealing unsuccessfully to the school board, Frederick sued, seeking removal of the suspension from his records, a declaration that his rights had been violated and damages. A federal judge ruled against him, but the appeals court overruled that decision.
Frederick's appeal drew support from the Student Press Law Center, the Village Voice newspaper and the First Amendment Project in Oakland. Sonja West, a lawyer for those organizations, said their chief concern was the federal judge's conclusion that the banner was school-sponsored expression, which would allow the school to control its content, like an official school newspaper.
The appeals court's disagreement with that conclusion "reaffirms the idea that for a school to simply allow students to express themselves during school hours does not mean the school is endorsing the message,'' West said.
Mertz said Frederick, now a student at the University of Idaho, would seek to end the case with an order prohibiting the school board from punishing students for nondisruptive speech.