An Alaskan high school student landed a five-day suspension from school. He wasn’t involved in a fight and he didn’t disrupt a classroom. No, in a 2002 parade in Juneau, Joseph Fredrick held up a sign stating, “Bong Hits for Jesus.”
One must note the sign was not held up on school grounds. Instead, school officials at the parade saw Fredrick’s sign and suspended him under the school’s zero-tolerance drug policy.
The American Civil Liberties Union lost the case in a federal district court, but the case was recently picked up by the (at least in this area) infamous 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Yes, the same appeals court that ruled the Pledge of Allegiance’s statement of “Under God” violated the constitutional boundaries of church and state will now decide if Jesus is, in fact, in favor of bong hits.
The school’s decision to suspend Fredrick runs counter to any logic contained in their reasoning. Yes, the sign referred to “bong hits,” which, as we all have heard from some other guy who did drugs once, is how one smokes marijuana. As those people who have done independent research also know, purchasing a bong comes with the strict warning of the bong being for “tobacco use only.” No one would dare violate such a law or store policy. Tommy Chong aside, the rule is rarely enforced.
But the question isn’t whether Jesus is “a friend of them long-haired, hippy-type pinko fags,” in the words of Charlie Daniels, but rather if a student has free speech rights guaranteed under the First Amendment.
Fredrick had committed other acts of civil disobedience before. According to a story in the Student Press Law Center, “He once refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance in school, hoping his defiance would illuminate the hypocrisy of a free country mandating loyalty from students.”
Fredrick does not mold to a traditional pattern of perception of the student protester. Having graduated from high school, he went to college for two years before deciding to join the Marine Corps. Not too many people I know who are active in the realms of protesting would contemplate such a maneuver, much less sign up. For some reason the Marine Corps doesn’t like long-haired vegetarians who enjoy reading Jonathan Safran Foer and drinking beer on sunny afternoons.
Yet, an obviously absurd protest sign should not warrant a school suspension. Much like any other religiously based sarcasm such, as “Nuke a gay whale for Christ” or “Who would Jesus bomb?” “Bong Hits for Jesus” is not endorsing that Christians should smoke pot in honor of their savior. It’s sarcastic and non-sensical. Or so it was intended to be interpreted.
In the Supreme Court’s decision of Tinker v. Des Moines, the high court ruled in favor of a group of high school students who wore black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War.
“It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” Justice Fortas wrote in the decision.
Yet, the Court did interpret that there were special circumstances involving schools and students’ access to free speech rights, but still maintained students were constitutionally defined “persons” inside and outside of the school’s boundaries.
Justice Fortas continued, “In our system, state-operated schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism. School officials do not possess absolute authority over their students.”
These school officials obviously had no authority over the student’s free speech rights. I would hope our schools, designed to promote the free exchange of ideas and opinions while building knowledge, would not follow the saying of Samuel Clemens, “In America — as elsewhere — free speech is confined to the dead.”
Brandon NiemeyerDaily Mississippian,University of Mississippi.