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Editorial: A silly banner and a stupid court appeal

Posted: Sunday, May 07, 2006

W hat is the Juneau School Board smoking? Whatever it is, its side effects seem to be paranoia, forgetfulness and an un-American hunger for control.

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On Tuesday, the board and the Juneau School District announced they would ask the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the 9th District Court of Appeals ruling that said administrators violated the U.S. Constitution when they suspended a boy for displaying a marijuana-themed banner on the street in 2002. Adding flair to the quixotic mission, the district enlisted attorney Kenneth Starr (yes, that Kenneth Starr, investigator of President Clinton's shenanigans), who knows a thing or two about jousting at windmills.

There are all manner of people who might think Joseph Frederick, the former Juneau-Douglas High School student who displayed "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" at a 2002 Winter Olympics torch rally, did a sophomoric thing. Many others would find his message blasphemous. School administrators found it counter to their anti-drug directives. All of those may be valid reactions, but none trumps the constitutional guarantee to free expression.

Frederick said what he said - not inside a classroom, but outside, where the marketplace of ideas still functions - and all of Juneau was free to laugh at him, to scold him, to ignore him. But pointless as the message may have been, no one in this country was free to shut him up. Government in America - school districts, police, the president - has both powers and limitations. Just as the federal government has the power to seize illegal drugs and air anti-drug messages, the Juneau School District has the power to prevent drug use in school and advocate against drugs - and to curtail speech that inhibits learning while in the classroom. Neither has the power to forbid people of any age from mentioning drugs or anything else in a public place. Sorry, but grasping for cheap laughs at a parade is protected speech. As kids have liked to say for generations, it's a free country.

By suing for his rights and winning, Frederick, now a student at the University of Idaho, made himself into a civics lesson for current and future Juneau-Douglas students. By asking the Supreme Court to step in, the board and district risk making him a civil liberties chapter in history books coast-to-coast. The whole thing is, to put it mildly, ridiculous.

Fortunately, the Supreme Court is busy with important matters. It's hard to imagine that the nation's top jurists will want to quibble with the appellate court's ruling that even a student can hold up a sign on the street.

Juneau school officials should put the "Bong Hits" case behind them. Pressing it further only extends Frederick's punch line.



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