School administrators across the country achieved a significant victory this week with the US Supreme Court's
6-3 decision that school officials could regulate certain forms of students' speech without running afoul of the free speech protections of the First Amendment. In Morse v. Frederick, a student held up a banner reading "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" at an Olympic torch relay that had passed in front of the school. When the student refused the principal's request to remove the banner, the student was suspended. He later sued the school board and the principal, claiming that the principal had violated his constitutional right to free speech. Although the trial court agreed with the school board and principal, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, finding that the message on the banner was not "plainly offensive."
Of significance was the Supreme Court's holding that a principal could act consistently with the First Amendment in restricting student speech at a school event when that speech is reasonably viewed as detrimental to the students' welfare – in this case, arguably promoting illegal drug use. While the rights of students are not shed at the schoolhouse door, the Court nevertheless reaffirmed that the constitutional rights of students in public school are not equal to the rights of adults in other settings. Since deterring drug use by school children is an important and compelling interest, the school principal acted properly in demanding the banner be removed. While the student argued the words were "just nonsense meant to attract television cameras," the Court was not swayed by the student's motive, instead agreeing with the school board that the banner could be viewed as either celebrating drug use or encouraging viewers to smoke marijuana. As the Court observed, "Gibberish is surely a possible interpretation of the words on the banner, but it is not the only one, and dismissing the banner as meaningless ignores its undeniable reference to illegal drugs."
This decision has already been hailed by educators across the country. As the Court observed in its concluding paragraph, "School principals have a difficult job, and a vitally important one." In an environment in which school administrators often feel pressured to look over their shoulders after every policy decision, this opinion sends a message that a student's free speech rights are not without limits.