It should be clear by now that this column is pro-drug. Or, if not pro-drug, anti-prohibition. So when it comes to the question of whether a high school student should be able to hold aloft a banner reading “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” on a school jaunt to see the Olympic flame go by, one would think my answer would be obvious. But I’m not going to let you all off that easily.
So here’s the nut-graph. (For those of you who, like me, didn’t go to journalism school but, unlike me, may not have been hanging around with unsavoury j-school types in the last few years, the “nut-graph” is that paragraph in a news story that gets to the “nut” of what’s at stake, briefly describing what the story’s all about and the issue or controversy at hand. I have a snickering suspicion this is the only thing one learns in journalism school.) During a school trip to watch the Olympic torch parade in 2002, Joseph Frederick, who was then a student at Alaska’s Juneau High School unfurled a 14-foot banner with the aforementioned legend. A suspension was imposed, which Frederick subsequently challenged in court on the ground that the punishment violated his right to free speech under the First Amendment. The case lit up the judicial system like a pinball machine, bouncing from one court to another until making it to the extra special secret bonus round known as the Roberts Court. Whether the Supremes will split over constitutional differences after hearing the case on March 19th remains to be seen, but whatever happens their decision will have a serious impact on the extent of protected student speech. The Bush administration and the forces of Christian conservatism – represented in this case by legal-hit-man-4-Jesus Kenneth Starr, who acted as defendant’s counsel – believe a school’s ability to punish expression that undermines its educational mission is crucial, and that the anti-drug message is essential to that mission. Drug war opponents and free speech advocates see a clear violation of protected political dissent in the name of propagandistic anti-drug policies.
This should be easy for me because I err on the side of free expression and I consider drug war messages to be pure propaganda and indoctrination packaged as education. I don’t think they serve any educational mission at all, unless you count scaremongering and moral panic. Underage high schoolers are particularly affected by drug war policies, being subject, for example, to random drug testing with the Supreme Court’s sanction where other citizens are not. Not to be able to criticize those policies, however silly the form that protest takes seems to be, would deny teenagers a basic right to dissent and participate in political discourse that we should not lightly refuse in a free society.
That said, kids can be a real pain in the ass. You know how the little punks are – always cheekily bucking authority and such. I’m partially serious. Educational institutions have a clear and legitimate interest in pursuing their teaching mission in an orderly and undisrupted fashion. Indeed, disruption is a key test when it comes to this area of the law. The controlling case on free speech rights for students, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, requires school officials to provide a constitutionally valid reason for a specific regulation of speech. That 1969 case concerned three students who wore black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War and in violation of a school policy passed explicitly to preempt their symbolic protest. The court ruled that as long as such expression was not unduly disruptive it was protected. In subsequent cases, the court has (unfortunately in my cursory view) carved out an exception for “indecent” speech. What is essentially being proposed in the current case is the carving out of an exception for drug-related speech.
Why the unfurling of a Bong Hits 4 Jesus banner would be particularly disruptive to watching an Olympic torch procession is hard to see. Frederick’s actions were certainly a challenge to the school’s anti-drug policy, but a challenge is rather different from a disruption. No class was disrupted by what he did, no ruckus caused, no textbook caused to be left unread or frog corpse undisected. An idea was simply questioned – in a rather dumb stoner way no doubt, but questioned nonetheless. A disruption is content neutral. Frederick’s suspension appears to have been quite the opposite. Had Frederick held up a banner that read “Go Crimson Bears” (how’s that for fine journalistic research? Take that J-School punks) would he have gotten in similar trouble? I doubt it. Kids should have the right to protest their school’s and government’s actions, the right to debate and disagree, the right – put simply – to just say no.
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