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Facts and Case Summary - Morse v. Frederick

Morse v. Frederick, 551 U.S. __, 127 S. Ct. 2618 (2007)
School authorities do not violate the First Amendment when they stop students from expressing views that may be interpreted as promoting illegal drug use.

Decision Date: June 25, 2007

Background

Joseph Frederick, a senior at Juneau-Douglas High School, held up a banner saying: "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" during the Olympic Torch Relay through Juneau, Alaska on January 24, 2002. Frederick's attendance at the event was part of a school-supervised activity.

School principal Deborah Morse told Frederick to put away the banner because it could be interpreted as advocating illegal drug activity. When Frederick refused, she took the banner. Frederick was suspended for 10 days for violating a school policy forbidding advocacy for the use of illegal drugs.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska in Juneau ruled for the principal, saying that Frederick's action was not protected by the First Amendment. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed and held that Frederick's banner was constitutionally protected. The principal appealed, and the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari (agreed to hear the case).

Decision and Reasoning

In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment does not prevent school administrators from restricting student expression that reasonably is viewed as promoting the use of illegal drugs.  The majority opinion cited Tinker v. Des Moines (1969), in which the Court stated that the anti-Vietnam War armbands that students wore at school were considered political speech that could only be prohibited if it "substantially disrupts” the educational process.

The majority cited two other cases – Bethel v. Fraser (1986) in which the Supreme Court ruled that students do not have a First Amendment right to make provocatively obscene speeches at school; and Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier (1988) in which the Supreme Court ruled that administrators can restrict student speech in school-sponsored newspapers.

In Morse v. Frederick, the majority acknowledged that the Constitution affords lesser protections to certain types of student speech at school or at school-supervised events. It found that Frederick message was, by his own admission, not political, as was the case in Tinker.  The Court said the phrase "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" reasonably could be viewed as promoting illegal drug use.

As such, the state had an "important" if not "compelling" interest in prohibiting/punishing such student speech. The Court held that schools may "take steps to safeguard those entrusted to their care from speech that can reasonably be regarded as encouraging illegal drug use" without violating a student's First Amendment rights.