Over the weekend, I saw what was either a 13 or 14 year-old boy walk into the lobby of a public skating rink wearing a T-shirt that said, "Budweiser, King of Beers." I saw another boy in the same age range wearing a T-shirt that advertised a
I also saw a girl who appeared to be 13 or 14 wearing a T-shirt that said, "Handle With Care" right across her breasts. I saw another girl who could not have been older than 15 wearing a spaghetti-strapped tank top with the phrase, "Danger Zone" across her breasts. No snickers, please -- both girls were standing next to me in the snack bar line.
I am assuming that all five teenagers are enrolled in local private or public schools. For the sake of argument, let's say that they are. Are the three boys endorsing underage drinking by wearing clothing that features beer and wine? Is the boy wearing the Duff cap endorsing anything at all, since there is no such thing as Duff beer? And the girls . . . are they soliciting sex by wearing shirts with sexually suggestive themes? Or are they just attempting to attract attention that, if reciprocated to the fullest, would probably be unwelcome and perhaps frightening?
Now, imagine that the Montgomery County Public School system (which serves my community and in which both my children are enrolled) has given its students the day off to honor returning Iraqi soldiers and other support staff (health professionals, technicians, contractors, etc.). Let's imagine that our neighborhood has organized a parade that will pass in front of our middle school. And let's say that a handful of students are standing across the street from the school holding the following banners, which are, oh, I don't know, about 12-14 long with two-foot letters:
"U.S. Out of Iraq"
A local television has sent a reporter to cover the parade. The cameras turn to the three banners, and the reporter remarks that students from
The answer is: nothing. These are students in their private capacity, and they have the right to say what they want in a public place as long as they do so peacefully.
Easy case? Yes, it is. But the Supreme Court heard a case yesterday that might well give school administrators near-limitless discretion to punish students for speech considered inappropriate or disruptive to the "educational mission" of a public school. Worse, the speech in question is so nonsensical that it defies a specific meaning. Years ago,
So again, easy case? Yes, it is.
No one can take the phrase, "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" seriously because it doesn't mean anything. Say it backwards, recite it slowly while watching “The Yellow Submarine” or listening to “Any Colour You Like” from Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon and the result is the same: nothing.
Remarkably, several justices appear to have completely missed the point at yesterday’s oral argument. Perhaps that is because Ken Starr – yes, him! – who argued the case on behalf of the school board, stressed during oral argument that the real issue was the school’s power to contain messages promoting the use of illegal drugs.
Again, the phrase “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” does not promote illegal drug use or discredit an historic figure. Switch the wording around: “Belly Shots 4 Jesus,” or “Jesus Gone Wild” or simply “4 Jesus.” And what do you get? The first makes no sense at all; the second could be interpreted a number of ways; but the third sends the clearest message of all. My guess is that if
Ken Starr said school officials must be given the authority to interpret the meaning of the “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” banner. He also pointed out schools have had the historic responsibilities of teaching “habits and manners of civility” and the “values of citizenship.” That might have been true as one point; schools now primarily spend their time teaching to the standardized tests that students take far more often than they work on their manners. But that is different issue.
I wonder what Ken Starr would have thought about students protesting racial segregation in the South during the pre-civil rights era, when even advocating integration was considered a “breach of peace” and punishable by criminal law. Or take that example back to the 1850s, when teaching slaves to read and write was a criminal offense under the slave codes. Or the 1840s and 1830s, when state law prohibited women from holding certain jobs, voting and pursuing a public education. Does Starr believe that the pre-Civil War South and all those other states across the land had it right in denying fundamental social, economic and political rights to women, slaves and others not considered citizens the right to advocate for their freedom? The Dean of the Pepperdine Law School should read Michael Kent Curtis's, "Free Speech: The People's Darling Privilege,'" for absolutely the best explanation going on the relationship between free speech and equality.
Joseph Frederick’s behavior was absolutely juvenile. Then again, he was a high school student at the time, a juvenile under the law and certainly acting in an age-appropriate fashion. The justices need to put the needless invocation of the “drug culture” aside and stick to the free speech issues. Let the reporters covering the case make all the har-de-har-I-know-what-a-blacklight-is jokes they want. Bongs, pot, papers, lava lamps, Bob Marley and dated pop culture references to "one toke over the line (Sweet Jesus," appropriately enough) betray an age and maturity gap on the whole marijuana legalization issue. Plenty of people use marijuana as responsibly as some people use alcohol. In fact, plenty of people who smoke marijuana do not own a black light, like Hostess Cream Filled Cupcakes, struggle with paranoia, hold their hand up to a bright light and think they see their bones, believe that John Lennon said that "I buried Paul" at the end of "I am the Walrus" (he said "cranberry sauce," if that matters) or watch one episode of "Star Trek" after another. Some of the justice's questions not withstanding, this is not a drug case.
Numerous Christian organizations filed briefs on behalf of Joseph Frederick in this case. They understand that if a public school can punish a student for holding a banner that says “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” off school property, then they can punish another student for holding a banner that says simply, “4 Jesus.”
And praise the Lord, what a bummer that would be.