Citation. 551 U.S. 393 (2007)
Brief Fact Summary. Joseph Frederick (P) , a public school student, was suspended by the principal Deborah Morse (D) for displaying a banner on which was written “Bong Hits 4 Jesus”, bong being slang for marijuana, at a school event which was covered by television. He sued the Principal.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. Public schools may lawfully prevent students from promoting the use of illegal drugs by display of banners or other material at any event supervised by the school.
Facts. Joseph Frederick (P) was a public school student who held up a banner with a cryptic message at a school function which was being televised. The banner read “Bong Hits 4 Jesus”. The school principal Deborah Morse (D) removed the banner and also suspended Frederick, under the school policy which prohibited the display of material which could be reasonably construed to promote illegal drug use. Frederick sued against the suspension on the ground that it violated his right to freedom of speech. The district court found against Frederick on the ground that the principal had qualified immunity in this case. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision citing Tinker as precedent, since the speech in this case did not cause disturbance and was therefore protected under the First Amendment.
Issue. Are public schools permitted under law to prevent students from promoting illegal drug use by the display of messages?
Held. (Roberts, C.J.) Yes. Public schools are allowed under law to prevent the display of messages by students which would promote drug use at events held under school auspices. Students do not enjoy full rights to freedom of speech while at school, as compared to adults, and the standard of student freedom of speech as set forth inTinker need not be taken as normative. The right to free speech while in school does not, for example, cover the right to promote illegal drug use, since this clashes with the school’s duty and responsibility to discourage this habit. Frederick’s message was not absolutely clear but carried a reasonable implication of favoring marijuana use. In this case the question of the Principal’s immunity need not be considered.
Dissent. (Breyer, J.) The qualified immunity enjoyed by the school principal means that the student cannot claim monetary damages in this case, so the case need not be decided on its merits. The case need not be decided until the need arises, in such circumstances. The importance of not deciding this case on its merits lies in the fact that the Court’s decision to uphold the school’s authority to curb pro-drug speech in order to protect its students could be the basis for more restrictions on the use of alcohol, conversations on the medicinal aspects of illegal drugs and other such issues, based on the school’s viewpoint. The interpretation of freedom of speech in this situation is thus difficult and attended with important consequences, and so should be left as such until required to be decided.
(Stevens, J.) The principal has immunity deservedly from the student’s suit, but the majority opinion does not take into consideration the right that even high-school students have the constitutional right to enjoy free debate on controversial ideas. The school has an interest or obligation to protect students from speech which could induce interest in the use of illegal drugs, but this interest cannot justify an action against this student, Frederick, simply because he tried to convey a message containing an ambiguous statement about drugs, which itself is far from clear, to a television audience.
Concurrence. (Thomas, J.) Students have no right to free speech in the adult context, and the decision in Tinker deserves to be struck out completely.
(Alito, J.) The decision to allow schools to restrict speech should be applicable to pro-drug content only and broader political speech should enjoy full freedom.
Discussion. The decision in this case came by a majority of 5-4. The Court was of two minds as to the students’ rights to freedom of speech to the utmost extent guaranteed by the First Amendment. In the case of Tinker, the decision was clear that the student continues to enjoy every freedom protected by the constitution even while at school, but in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S.260 (1986) the Court ruled that Tinker must be limited by the particular situation of the school environment, in applying constitutional freedoms, and this was confirmed by Bethel School District No 403 v. Fraser, 478 U.S.675 (1986) , in which the rights of students in the setting of a public school are not to be held to be as extensive as the rights of adults in other situations.