US Supreme Court examines 'Bong Hits 4 Jesus'

The United States Supreme Court examines on Monday a case raising questions over free-speech rights in US high schools as it hears arguments over a student’s unfurling of a quirky banner proclaiming “Bong Hits 4 Jesus”.

Joseph Frederick drew the ire of his school principal in Juneau, Alaska, on January 24 2002 when the then 18-year-old student unveiled the huge banner in front of television cameras as the Olympic flame passed in front of a crowd.

Principal Deborah Morse, whose school had authorised the students to leave class for the event, was not amused by Frederick’s linkage between Jesus and a bong, a pipe used to smoke marijuana.

Morse crossed the street, destroyed the banner and suspended Frederick from school for 10 days.

Frederick, now 23, said he had conducted “a free-speech experiment”. The banner is “absurdly funny.
It doesn’t make any sense at all,” he said in a telephone news conference from China where he studies and teaches.

On Monday, his experiment goes before the US Supreme Court, which will hear debate over a student’s right to free speech versus the school’s power to impose order.

The case has drawn heavy hitters, including the powerful American Civil Liberties Union, which backed Frederick from the beginning.

Morse is represented by Kenneth Starr, the former special prosecutor who led the investigation of Bill Clinton and his relationship with a White House intern, which almost cost the then US president his job.

The US government will also side with the school.

Frederick took his case to federal court, arguing that his free-speech right, protected under the First Amendment, had been violated and demanding damages from Morse.

He lost the first round when a trial judge ruled for Morse, saying she did not violate the student’s rights, and even if she had, cannot be held personally responsible for her decisions as an educator.

That judgement was overturned on appeal, based on a 1969 Supreme Court decision in favour of students who wore black armbands protesting the Vietnam War, an act the court said did not interfere with the school’s mission.

Morse appealed to the Supreme Court, and Starr will argue for her that school officials need to be able to impose discipline, which has the approval of the National School Board Association.

The US government lawyer, Solicitor General Paul Clement, will argue that the banner’s reference to a bong amounts to urging drug use, and high schools must be able to quash that sort of talk.

Surprisingly, religious group have taken Frederick’s side, putting President George Bush’s support base at odds with the administration.

The American Centre for Law and Justice, which specialises in constitutional law and is dedicated to defending freedom of religion and speech, submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in favour of the student.

If schools could have banned advocacy of illegal acts during the 1960s Civil Rights movement, “students who urged their black friends not to move to the back of the bus” could have been kicked out of school, the brief said.

“In the abortion context, there would be no First Amendment protection for pro-life students who urged their classmates or others to ‘sit in’ at abortion facilities,” the brief said.

Students planned to demonstrate on Monday outside the Supreme Court in Washington.

“What the banner said was, ‘Look here, I have the right to free speech and I’m asserting it,’” Frederick said.

“I wasn’t trying to say anything about religion, I wasn’t trying to say anything about drugs,” he said. “The phrase was not important.”

It is to some: T-shirts with the slogan “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” are selling like hot cakes on the internet.—Sapa-AFP

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