Empire Editiorial: Don't suspend the student messenger

Posted: Sunday, March 19, 2006

I disagree with "Bong Hits 4 Jesus," but I will defend to the death your right to display it on a banner.

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Such might be Voltaire's stand on Juneau's "Bong Hits" caper, and it is essentially the view expressed by judges on the 9th District Court of Appeals last week. They're right - and the Juneau School District was wrong - because suspending a student for a written prank displayed on the street is obviously unconstitutional. Furthermore, it's not much of a civics example for young citizens, though in this case it did turn out to be a lesson.

The case stems from the 2002 Winter Olympics Torch Relay, which Juneau-Douglas High School students were permitted to attend during school hours. Student Joseph Frederick, now studying at the University of Idaho, displayed a "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" banner, and incurred the wrath of school officials for it. It's hard to believe that Frederick was really asserting his constitutional rights that day, as he claimed, and not just being a nutty teen craving attention. (We can suppose that here because we have freedom of expression.) But whether he set out to save civil liberties, to impress his friends, or even seriously to advocate dope for the Lord, he was on a street in America. That means that as long as he wasn't harassing anyone or creating a hazard, he can make his point.

Free speech is the bedrock upon which American freedoms grow. The concept, enshrined in the Constitution, protects written and spoken ideas and messages, regardless of how popular, right or stupid they may be. Indeed, the idea of someone - or even everyone - deciding what is right to say is the very oppression that the Constitution's drafters sought to prevent.

School and district officials made a mess of the case from the beginning, first suspending the boy for 10 days and then hounding him for seemingly unrelated actions. Soon after, he was suspended for bringing a Leatherman tool to school - potentially a legitimate offense in sketchy times, but come on. School policy forbade carrying knives, including the short blade in such common folding tools, unless they were for educational purposes. Frederick claimed he used the knife in auto shop, and in any case this suspension came only a couple of months after the school's "Bong Hits" embarrassment. In the most glaring example of Frederick's targeting, he was arrested for criminal trespassing for parking outside the city pool during his suspension because it's technically on school property. One hopes there were some thoughtful debates in the school's civics classes that year - and again this month - because of the case. Terms such as "police state" come to mind.

Juneau's schools have a legitimate, compelling interest in curtailing drug use. Superintendent Peggy Cowan pointed this out in her response to the court ruling, saying, "Frederick's message appeared to promote illegal drug use. A fundamental part of the district's educational mission is to prevent illegal drug use by students and to promote a healthy, drug-free lifestyle." But this is no different than saying that the U.S. government has a mission to prevent illegal drug use. It doesn't mean that the government can censor someone who disagrees. It doesn't mean that people can't write letters to the editor - or wear T-shirts - advocating legalized drugs, as many do. As the court pointed out when it ruled in Frederick's favor, students have speech rights too, and a school, as an extension of government, is not allowed to suppress speech that undermines whatever mission it defines for itself."

Juneau school officials should take this ruling to heart and leave the drug-free lessons to health class, and not to censorship.

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