Our View: ‘Bong Hits 4 Jesus’ student within his free speech rights

By Robb Klassen 2007

In 1969, three high school students from Des Moines wore black armbands in peaceful protest of the Vietnam War. In response, the school board had all three students suspended and sent home. The students plead innocence under the First Amendment and their case, Tinker vs. Des Moines, reached national prominence. The Supreme Court held on behalf of the three students and declared that, from that point, all students would be protected under the First Amendment to express themselves peacefully on school grounds. Though this decision was first heard nationally 38 years ago, there are still occasional violations of Tinker vs. Des Moines.

In 2002, at a Juneau, Alaska, high school, senior Joseph Frederick held up a controversial banner just outside school property that read, “Bong Hits 4 Jesus.” He held it up during an Olympic torch relay with the sole intention of amusing his friends and other witnesses who were attending the school event. After the principal saw his sign, however, she automatically suspended him for 10 days for promoting illegal drug substances. Frederick felt as if his freedom of speech rights were violated. Many, including the Hi-line editors, agree with Frederick that he was protected under Tinker vs. Des Moines.

Not only was Frederick expressing his “views” peacefully, but he was also off school property when he displayed the sign. What’s more, he also had no illegal substances of any kind with him at the time.

Now, the issue is receiving national recognition. Attorney Kenneth Starr, who is best known for the Monica Lewinsky fiasco during the Clinton administration, recently sided with the school board, arguing that Frederick’s actions were out of line. The verdict has yet to be heard from the U.S. Supreme Court.

Though the humor motivating Frederick’s sign may have been questionable, he cannot justly be suspended on immaturity alone. And as the display was peaceful and not directly influencing drug use, Tinker vs. Des Moines should have been a strong motivator against his suspension.

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