The Supreme Court stepped into a dispute over free speech rights Friday involving a suspended high school student and his banner that proclaimed “Bong Hits 4 Jesus.”
Justices agreed to hear the appeal by the Juneau, Alaska, school board and principal Deborah Morse of a lower court ruling that allowed the student’s civil rights lawsuit to proceed. The school board hired former Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr to argue its case to the high court.
Morse suspended Frederick after he displayed the banner, with its reference to marijuana use, when the Olympic torch passed through Juneau in 2002 on its way to the Winter Games in Salt Lake City.
Frederick, then a senior, was off school property when he hoisted the banner but was suspended for violating the school’s policy of promoting illegal substances at a school-sanctioned event.
The school board upheld the suspension and a federal judge initially dismissed Frederick’s lawsuit before the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals called the banner vague and nonsensical, but said that Frederick’s civil rights had been violated.
At that point, the school board hired Starr, who investigated President Clinton’s relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. He took the case free of charge.
The appeals court said that even if the banner could be construed as a positive message about marijuana use, the school could not punish or censor a student’s speech because it promotes a social message contrary to one the school favors.
Frederick said his motivation for unfurling the banner was simple: He wanted it seen on television.
The case is Juneau School Board v. Frederick, 06-278.