Several years ago, I was a new immigrant to the United States and an aspiring delinquent who hadn’t quite been able to acclimate to London’s snobbier schools. Something about authoritarian rigidity, little fascist uniforms and older boys throwing younger boys into urinals didn’t sit well with me (just as I’m sure it didn’t sit too well with the boy I saw get thrown into the urinal). In any event, a school needed to be found for me and since the Baltimore City Public Schools were better known for drug murders than scholastic excellence, it really came down to a choice of which private school for pampered white kids best suited my temperament. So it was that I pulled on my best non-fascist clothes and went to visit the nearby Quaker-hippie academy to see if it was for me. The clothes in question were a pair of ragged jeans and a T-shirt with a picture of a cannabis plant on it and the words “Don’t Walk on the Grass. Smoke It!” blaring across my chest. I had acquired this T-shirt in a grimy shack in Camden Town, a rather scummy area of London (at least it was then) that caters to counter-cultural sartorial tastes and mischievous teenage boys with little drug experience and unsophisticated senses of humor. Suffice it to say that I thought the T-shirt was hilarious.

My prospective educators did not. “You need to cover that up,” one of the students warned me nervously. “You can’t have any signs on your clothes.” I had no idea what he was talking about. Coming from the kind of schools where I was forced to wear crotch-throttling dress trousers, itchy blazers emblazoned with pompous emblems and repulsive striped nooses masquerading as ties, I couldn’t for the life of me understand why a school that allowed its students to turn up in mufti would bother imposing a dress code or care about corporate logos in the sea of saggy pants and baggy hoodies. It was, as my new acquaintances would say, “retarded.” Nevertheless, as soon as we sat down for class, the teacher fixed her eyes on me and explained the policy. “We don’t yoo-sually allow clothes with any kand of writin’ onnnit,” she drawled. “Especially ones that advertise druuuuuuuuugs.” I chose a different school.

Joseph Frederick, formerly of Alaska’s Juneau High School, might not have a more sophisticated sense of humor than my teenage self. But at least he got to have the Supreme Court of the United States rule on the matter. During a school trip to watch the Olympic torch parade in 2002, Frederick unfurled a 14-foot banner bearing the legend: “Bong Hits 4 Jesus.” (Actually, that one’s kind of funny.) Outraged, and in defense of the school’s interest in discouraging kids from illegal drug use, Frederick’s principal demanded the banner be taken down. Frederick refused, a suspension was imposed, and Frederick subsequently challenged that suspension in court on the grounds that the punishment violated his right to free speech under the First Amendment.

Rising up through the courts like a billowing cloud of bong smoke, Frederick’s case made it all the way to the Supremes, who recently harshed everyone’s buzz by ruling against him, proving once again that the justices of the Supreme Court are a bunch of melvins who don’t get invited to all the cool parties for a reason. (That’s excepting Justices Stevens, Souter and Ginsberg, whose dank dissents were delightful.) The decision – Morse v. Frederick – is both absurd and amusing. Amusing thanks to passages in which the land’s highest judicial authority discusses the intricacies of drug references in the squarest language imaginable (“At least two interpretations of the words on the banner demonstrate that the sign advocated the use of illegal drugs. First, the phrase could be interpreted as an imperative: “[Take] bong hits …”—a message equivalent, as Morse explained in her declaration, to “smoke marijuana” or “use an illegal drug.” Alternatively, the phrase could be viewed as celebrating drug use—”bong hits [are a good thing],” or “[we take] bong hits.”). Absurd because the decision essentially says that students have no right to free speech if a school official considers what they are saying to be an endorsement of illegal drug use – the judicial equivalent of Mr. Mackey’s “drugs are bad, mmmkay,” and about as silly.

“Congress has declared that part of a school’s job is educating students about the dangers of illegal drug use,” the court noted. “It has provided billions of dollars to support state and local drug-prevention programs and required that schools receiving federal funds under the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act of 1994 certify that their drug prevention programs ‘convey a clear and consistent message that … the illegal use of drugs [is] wrong and harmful…Consistent with these principles, we hold that schools may take steps to safeguard those entrusted to their care from speech that can reasonably be regarded as encouraging illegal drug use.”

Those in the majority were careful to say that their decision did not deny students the right to dissent politically from anti-drug messages, to express opposition to the War on Drugs or advocate legalization. That I suppose is some consolation. But in a way, it makes their decision even more ridiculous. It suggests that had Frederick unfurled a banner that read “Legalize It,” or even “Legalize Bong Hits 4 Jesus,” he would have been in the clear. (Or, perhaps more appropriately for an Olympic Torch event – “Steroids for Sprinters,” not illegal as long as you have a prescription.) Basically, the court is saying that a student could declare “marijuana should not be illegal” but if he or she followed that statement with the words “because marijuana isn’t bad or dangerous and in some cases is actually good for people,” that student could well be hauled away for disrupting “the school’s educational mission to educate students about the dangers of illegal drugs and to discourage their use.” Given the court’s stance that schools have a right to have the “drugs are bad” position go utterly unchallenged, and given that the interpretation of what constitutes “endorsement” will be left up to school officials, the distinction between polite “political” dissent and supposed endorsement of illegal drug use seems to melt away. (Students for Sensible Drug Policy has a fun game where you can role play being an administrator trying to decide what’s kosher speech.)

By definition, speech is not free if it is cordoned off into a tidy little corner. But perhaps most galling is that this encroachment on freedom of expression and dissent is being perpetrated in the name of an educational mission that is utterly futile. Not one student will be discouraged from using illegal drugs by the state-sponsored propaganda of the War on Drugs, an “education” that will be taken even less seriously by the nation’s youth once they learn that disagreeing with it is a punishable offense. If the delicate flower of the state’s anti-drug message can only be protected from mockery and ridicule by judicial fiat, perhaps that message is inherently flawed. If Juneau High School and the Supreme Court can’t take a joke, I can only imagine what they would have made of my T-shirt.

To read other blog entries by Hasdai Westbrook or others at GUERNICA click HERE



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