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U.S. Supreme Court

Court Backs School in ‘Bong Hits’ Case (Updated)

Posted Jun 25, 2007 1:30 PM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in a 5-4 decision that public schools may punish students who promote illegal drug use.

The ruling came in the the case of a student who unfurled a banner that read "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" while attending a parade sanctioned by the school.

Student Joseph Frederick had contended his suspension for hoisting the banner violated his right to free speech.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote the majority opinion, Associated Press reports.

"The message on Frederick's banner is cryptic," Roberts said. "But [the school principal] thought the banner would be interpreted by those viewing it as promoting illegal drug use, and that interpretation is plainly a reasonable one."

Marty Lederman writes on SCOTUSblog that a controlling concurrence by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. limits the reach of the decision. Alito is joined by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. The concurrence reads:

"I join the opinion of the court on the understanding that (a) it goes no further than hold that a public school may restrict speech that a reasonable observer would interpret as advocating illegal drug use and (b) it provides no support for any restriction of speech that can plausibly be interpreted as commenting on any political or social issue, including speech on issues such as 'the wisdom of the war on drugs or of legalizing marijuana for medicinal use.' ”

Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in dissent, according to CNN.

"This case began with a silly nonsensical banner," he wrote, and "ends with the court inventing out of whole cloth a special First Amendment rule permitting the censorship of any student speech that mentions drugs, so long as someone could perceive that speech to contain a latent pro-drug message."

The ruling is Morse v. Frederick, No. No. 06–278 (PDF).

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