Jun 25, 2007

sorry, Jesus: no bong hits for you

Joseph Frederick has lost his free speech case.
Joseph Frederick unfurled his homemade sign on a winter morning in 2002, as the Olympic torch made its way through Juneau, Alaska, en route to the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

Frederick said the banner was a nonsensical message that he first saw on a snowboard. He intended the banner to proclaim his right to say anything at all.

His principal, Deborah Morse, said the phrase was a pro-drug message that had no place at a school-sanctioned event. Frederick denied that he was advocating for drug use.

"The message on Frederick's banner is cryptic," Roberts said. "But Principal Morse thought the banner would be interpreted by those viewing it as promoting illegal drug use, and that interpretation is plainly a reasonable one."
I've already written elsewhere:
While academics might posit that meaning is a function of the text, or of the author's intent, or of a transaction between author and reader mediated via text, when it comes to this case, school administrators are essentially reader response theorists. What matters isn't what Frederick wrote, so much as what effect it would have on its readers, no matter how nonsensical the message.
Chief Justice John "Stanley Fish" Roberts, writing for the Court, essentially adopted that hermeneutic.

Update: The opinion is here [pdf].

Update II: This is how the Court's thinking has evolved over time: from "materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school" (the Tinker standard) to "inconsistent with the school's educational mission" (the ham-fisted administrator standard).

Update III: Law prof Eugene Volokh tries to understand Alito's ruling, which he sees as controlling the case.


Dr Pezz said...

Moving to "inconsistent with the school's educational mission" is a frightening standard to use. Now, this could be used anywhere from debates to school newspapers to conversations. I can't speak for other schools, but the head administrator in my school likes to interpret rules and laws to further administrative control and power. I don't see this decision as a win for free speech or students.

Dr Pezz said...

Sitting here thinking about it, the other worry I have--especially in my ultra-conservative community--is that this ruling could pave the way for administrators to restrict speech regarding issues of homosexuality and religious freedom.

In fact, my school's administrators were less than enthusiastic to support the national Day of Silence, which shows solidarity for those who have no voice (gay and lesbian students/citizens).

This just weakens the constitutional protections when entering the schoolhouse gate.

Jim Anderson said...

drpezz, Thankfully the majority opinion wasn't authored by Clarence "What student rights?" Thomas. His concurrence is a thing of ugly.

Nuss said...

Uh, yeah -- the 1800s were the heyday of education?

Oh ... my ... gosh.