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Monday, June 25, 2007

No Bong Hits for Jesus

Well it's the end of the road for Joseph Frederick, the high school student from Juneau, Alaska who was suspended in 2002 for unfurling a banner reading Bong Hits for Jesus as the Olympic flame passed by. It's unfortunate that the boundaries of our Constitutional rights are tested by idiots and assholes, but if you really think about it, it's those people who are willing to go too far who demonstrate for the rest of us exactly how far we can go.

The setback doesn't seem to have hindered Frederick too much; he's now living and teaching in China. But how much has it affected the civil liberties of the rest of America's public school children? Frederick himself admits that it was not an exercise in free expression so much as a publicity stunt, saying that

the words on his 14ft (4.26m) banner did not relate to drug use and were meant to be funny in an attempt to get on television.

I suppose he could have just as easily mooned the cameras and achieved roughly the same effect, although I have to give him props for creativity. If he had chosen this more trite route, he would have received the same suspension and moved on. Unfortunately, at least for our legal system, he is a better humorist than that. So instead the battle raged all the way to the Supreme Court. He lost his case, but it was close. 5-4. Not a solid victory either way.

Though I am a staunch civil libertarian, I have to disagree with my beloved ACLU on this one. I don't believe Frederick's right of free speech was violated. If his banner had read Impeach Bush or Make Love, Not War or even Legalize Marijuana, then it might be a different story. If the kid were actually trying to make an important statement, I would support him, whether I agreed with it or not. Instead I have to agree with my conservative pal Darren over at Right on the Left Coast. Frederick admitted that he wasn't trying to promote drug use, Christianity, or any combination of the two. He was trying to be funny. I believe he succeeded, and like every good class clown knows, sometimes you have to take the punishment for your craft.

He broke school rules at a school sponsored activity, and they were well within their rights to discipline him.

I fear the fall-out from this case will be severe. Students do have to constantly fight for their rights. They are in a unique spot. Unlike other minority groups, they can't take their fight to the election booth. They can't vote about anything. So they have to convince adults to do it for them, and that can be tough to do, especially when well publicized cases of stupidity like this get conservatives up in arms. I would never wish for anybody's rights to be violated, but it certainly wouldn't hurt the cause if a more easily defensible case came to light, and the sooner the better.


Greg said...

But Tony -- if the sign had said "Make Love, Not War" we would have gotten the argument that it was promoting teen sex and therefore interfered with the school's educational mission and the mandate to reduce teen pregnancy. And given an earlier decision limiting Tinker, Frederick would have been punished and his case never risen beyond the district court level.

Darren said...

I'm glad we agree :-)