When Joseph Frederick, a Juneau, Alaska, high school senior, unrolled a 14-foot banner proclaiming "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" at a 2002 Winter Olympics torch relay rally near his school, he was trying to attract TV cameras. Instead he caught the eye of Deborah Morse, the school's principal, who crossed the street, grabbed the banner, crumpled it up, and suspended Frederick for 10 days.
Morse was offended not by the banner's religious content but by what she took to be its pro-marijuana message, which she felt undermined the school's anti-drug stance. When the U.S. Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of Morse's heavy-handed censorship on Monday, it seemed a majority might be prepared to accept her interpretation and obligingly carve out a "drug exception" to the First Amendment.
It's about time. The Supreme Court has been using drug cases to whittle away at the Fourth Amendment's prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures for years, leaving freedom of speech untouched. If achieving a drug-free society means students have to hand over their urine as the price for participating in extracurricular activities, why should they be free to mock anti-drug orthodoxy, even unintentionally?
"Illegal drugs and the glorification of the drug culture are profoundly serious problems for our nation," Kenneth Starr told the Supreme Court during oral arguments in the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" case. And if linking the drug culture to Jesus Christ does not qualify as glorification, what does?
Starr, a former solicitor general, feels so strongly about the issue that he is representing Morse and the school district for free. On the other side are the usual suspects: the American Civil Liberties Union, the Drug Policy Alliance, Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice. Wait a minute.
It turns out that Robertson's group, which probably does not share whatever sentiment Frederick's cryptic banner expressed, is not the only organization representing the interests of religious conservatives that is defending the right to offend school administrators. The Christian Legal Society, the Alliance Defense Fund, the Rutherford Institute and the Liberty Legal Institute also are alarmed by the sweeping claim that public school officials may censor any speech they consider contrary to their "educational mission," even if it happens off campus.
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