WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A divided Supreme Court on Monday curtailed free-speech rights for students, ruling against a teenager who unfurled a banner saying “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” because the message could be interpreted as promoting drug use.
In its first major decision on student free-speech rights in nearly 20 years, the high court’s conservative majority ruled that a high school principal did not violate the student’s rights by confiscating the banner and suspending him.
The decision marked a continuing shift to the right by the court since President George W. Bush appointed Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito. The court has issued a series of narrow 5-4 decisions on divisive social issues like abortion and the death penalty.
In another decision on Monday by the same 5-4 vote, the court ruled taxpayers cannot challenge Bush’s use of government funds to finance social programs operated by religious groups.
“Both of these First Amendment cases reflect the clear right-wing trend of the Roberts court. Unmistakably. Both are clearly wrong,” said Abner Greene, a Fordham University law professor.
In the school case, student Joseph Frederick said the banner’s language was meant to be nonsensical and funny, a prank to get on television as the Winter Olympic torch relay passed by the school in January 2002 in Juneau, Alaska.
But school officials say the phrase “bong hits” refers to smoking marijuana. Principal Deborah Morse suspended Frederick for 10 days because she said the banner advocated or promoted illegal drug use in violation of school policy.
The majority opinion written by Roberts agreed with Morse. He said a principal may restrict student speech at a school event when it is reasonably viewed as promoting illegal drug use.
Drug abuse by the nation’s youth is a serious problem, Roberts said.
Liberal Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented on the free-speech issue.
“Although this case began with a silly nonsensical banner, it ends with the court inventing out of whole cloth a special First Amendment rule permitting the censorship of any student speech that mentions drugs,” Stevens wrote.
Justice Stephen Breyer said he would have decided the case without reaching the free-speech issue by ruling the principal cannot be held liable for damages.
The Bush administration supported Morse and argued that public schools do not have to tolerate a message inconsistent with its basic educational mission.
Kenneth Starr, the former special prosecutor who investigated former President Bill Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal, argued the case for Morse and said the ruling has implications for public school districts nationwide.
Morse said, “I am gratified that the Supreme Court has upheld the application of our common sense policies.”
The American Civil Liberties Union, which represented Frederick, criticized the ruling for allowing censorship of student speech without any evidence that school activities had been disrupted.
“The court’s ruling imposes new restrictions on student speech rights and creates a drug exception to the First Amendment,” said Steven Shapiro, its national legal director.