The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Monday in the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" case, a free speech conflict that has caught the attention of religious litigators nationwide.
Morse v. Frederick is the high court's first student speech case in nearly 20 years, and comes at a time when school administrators and students regularly battle over religious activities in public schools.
The case concerns an Alaska high school student who displayed a banner reading "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" as the Olympic torch passed through his town in 2002. After he was suspended, the student, Joseph Frederick, now 23, said his banner was a "free speech experiment" that had no religious or political message.
At Monday's hearing, the Supreme Court justices jousted with the attorneys over how broadly the court should interpret case law.
Kenneth W. Starr, the school's attorney, argued, "To promote drugs is utterly inconsistent with the basic educational mission of the schools." The former independent prosecutor said he was not trying to "cast a pall of orthodoxy" on the schools. "We are light years away from that," he said. The fundamental issue here, he argued, is the promotion of drugs, and administrators must be allowed to suppress pro-drug messages.
Under current law, schools are allowed to squelch speech that causes a significant disruption, is vulgar or offensive, or is perceived to be sponsored by the school, such as a school newspaper.
Justice Antonin Scalia said it is possible that any speech opposing a school's anti-drug message is "disruptive."
"The school is trying to teach one point of view," said Scalia. "It can allow students to come in and undermine what it's trying to teach?"
While a 1969 court ruling said students' rights do not end "at the schoolhouse ...1