Freedom of Expression; T-Shirt Case Is Ripe for Review

Article excerpt

Byline: Clay Calvert and Robert D. Richards, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Can the nation's public high schools stop students from displaying messages that promote or advocate illegal drug use without violating the First Amendment-protected right of free speech?

That's the gist of the question that the U.S. Supreme Court now is being asked to consider in a case called Frederick v. Morse coming out of the liberal-leaning 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

In this dispute, the 9th Circuit ruled in March in favor of a Juneau, Alaska, high school senior named Joseph Frederick, who unfurled a banner reading "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" while standing on a sidewalk adjacent to school property as the Olympic torch relay passed by back in 2002. The students had the school's permission to be there, under faculty supervision.

In tossing out the suspension given to Mr. Frederick, the appellate court rejected the school's assertion that the suppression of his speech was justified because the banner was "inconsistent with the district's basic educational mission to promote a healthy, drug-free life style."

Although the message on the banner may seem silly and even nonsensical, the Supreme Court should grant the school's motion to hear the case filed in late August by former Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr and his firm, Kirkland & Ellis.

In particular, the case should be considered not simply to resolve the question about pro-drug speech in public schools, but perhaps more importantly to resuscitate the high court's moribund and muddled jurisprudence of student free-expression rights.

The Supreme Court has ruled directly only three times in its history in cases affecting student speech rights in public school settings. The most recent of those decisions came nearly 20 years ago, in 1988, and involved a traditional high-school newspaper that was produced as part of the school curriculum.

In the meantime, schools have grappled with a multitude of new problems, including violent on-campus outbursts like that at Columbine High School, technology such as the Internet that provides students with fingertip access to questionable content on and off campus and a generation of minors that engage, perhaps too early, in both behavior and speech once reserved for the adult population.

In addition, students are now creating their own Web sites and using social networks like MySpace. …