A dispute over a student prank near an Alaska high school raises constitutional questions about student free speech and whether school officials can be sued for damages when they muzzle a teenager’s attempt at humor, says the Christian Science Monitor. The U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments today in a a case involving a student-displayed banner that proclaimed: “Bong Hits 4 Jesus.” At issue is whether a high school principal violated the free-speech rights of a student when she confiscated the banner and suspended the student for 10 days after he and others unfurled the sign in front of students and local television cameras.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that the principal could be sued personally for money damages for violating the student’s clearly established free-speech rights. To Deborah Morse, principal of Juneau-Douglas High School, the banner glorified illegal marijuana use in violation of the school’s antidrug policies. “Promotion of illegal drug use and the drug culture is uniquely undeserving of First Amendment protection in the school setting,” said Kenneth Starr, former U.S. solicitor general in his brief for the principal. The student, Joseph Frederick, says the principal is misconstruing the case by portraying the issue as whether schools have the authority to prohibit pro-drug statements by students. “This case is not about drugs. This case is about speech,” says Juneau lawyer Douglas Mertz in his brief for Frederick.