WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday curbed students' rights to advocate drug use or even joke about it, ruling against a former Alaska high school student who raised a banner at a sports rally in Juneau that read "Bong Hits 4 Jesus."
Unamused by the 2002 antic, and unpersuaded by free-speech arguments, the court's conservative majority ruled that a school principal acted reasonably in suspending the sign-waving student even though he wasn't on school grounds.
More generally, the ruling enhances school authorities' power to control students' behavior.
"Schools may take steps to safeguard those entrusted to their care from speech that can reasonably be regarded as encouraging illegal drug use," Chief Justice John G. Roberts wrote for the court's majority.
Four other justices joined Roberts fully in the decision. A fifth, Justice Stephen Breyer, agreed with the majority for different reasons.
Students still have some First Amendment rights under the court's ruling. Justice Samuel Alito, in an important concurring opinion, stressed that students are still capable of commenting on political and social issues including "the wisdom of the war on drugs" itself.
"The court went out of its way to protect the free speech rights of students," noted Brad Dacus, the president of the conservative Pacific Justice Institute, based in Sacramento, Calif.
These rights, though, can be outweighed by the school's need for discipline; especially when it comes to drugs, the court's majority concluded.
Citing statistics, including surveys that found that about half of American high school seniors have tried illicit drugs, the court's majority stressed the "special characteristics of the school environment" in justifying the regulation of students' speech.
"Deterring drug use by schoolchildren is an important, indeed, perhaps compelling interest," wrote Roberts, himself the father of two children.
The court's three dissenters said the decision in the case, Morse v. Frederick, amounted to discrimination against specific viewpoints.
"The court does serious violence to the First Amendment in upholding — indeed, lauding — a school's decision to punish (a student) for expressing a view with which it disagreed," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote.
The ruling relieves the Bush administration, anti-drug groups and organizations such as the National School Boards Association that had filed briefs supporting the principal.
But it frustrates the American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations that advocate free speech.
"The court's ruling . . . creates a drug exception to the First Amendment," complained Steven R. Shapiro, the ACLU's national legal director.
It was one of the most closely watched school free-speech cases since 1969, when the Supreme Court ruled that Iowa high school student Mary Beth Tinker could wear a black armband opposing the Vietnam War.
Now a nurse practitioner in St. Louis, Tinker was in the courtroom during the March 19 oral argument in the Bong Hits 4 Jesus case.
On Jan. 24, 2002, the Olympic Torch Relay was running through the streets of Juneau. The event attracted news coverage as well as the sponsorship of companies that included Coca-Cola. As the runners passed along Glacier Avenue, 18-year-old Joseph Frederick and several fellow students standing on the public sidewalk unfurled their "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" banner.
"The content of the banner was less important to us than the fact that we were exercising our free-speech rights to do a funny parody," Frederick later testified.
Juneau Douglas High School Principal Deborah Morse saw the banner, crossed the street and took it from Frederick's hands. The teen began quoting Thomas Jefferson; she suspended him for 10 days.
"To my knowledge," Morse later explained, "a 'bong' is a slang term for a water-cooled pipe or pipe-like device commonly used for smoking marijuana. . . . I believe that the reference to a 'bong hit' would be widely understood by high school students and others as referring to smoking marijuana."
Stevens disagreed in his dissent Monday, dismissing the banner as "nonsense" that was "never meant to persuade anyone to do anything."