Nonsense for Freedom

Nonsense for Freedom

Here’s what was argued before the Supreme Court today:

What does it mean?  Does it promote drugs?  Does it promote Christianity?  Both?  Neither?  Is it purely nonsense?  Would David Byrne approve of the message?  Do you care?

I wrote more details about the case back in December when it was taken up by the Supreme Court. 

Most people seem to agree (last I checked it was 74% to 26% at this MSNBC poll) that it was wrong for the school principal to make Joseph Frederick take down his sign that he was holding up across the street from his school during an Olympic Torch Relay passing through Juneau that day and then expel him from school.  Most people agree that his nonsensical banner fell under the category of “free speech.”

Kenneth Starr argued for the opposing point of view:

“Illegal drugs and the glorification of the drug culture are profoundly serious problems for our nation,” Mr. Starr, a former solicitor general, told the justices in the opening moments of his argument on Monday.

In other words, his approach was to present the free-speech case as a drug case and argue that whatever rights students may have under the First Amendment to express themselves, speaking in oblique or even in arguably humorous dissent from a school’s official antidrug message is not one of them. 

That seems like quite a stretch…

How did the judges react?

Chief Justice Roberts took issue with a suggestion by the student’s lawyer, Douglas K. Mertz, that schools that seek to inculcate an antidrug message must permit students, outside the formal classroom setting, to offer competing views. “Content neutrality is critical here,” Mr. Mertz said.

“Where does that notion that our schools have to be content neutral” come from, the chief justice wanted to know. He added, “I thought we wanted our schools to teach something, including something besides just basic elements, including character formation and not to use drugs.”

Mr. Mertz clarified his point. “There is no requirement of equal time or that it be neutral,” he said. The school should be able to express a viewpoint, he continued, but “in the lunchroom, outside in recess, across the street, that is a quintessentially open forum where it would not be proper, I think, to tell students you may not mention this subject, you may not take this position.”

During the argument, Justice Alito interrupted Mr. Kneedler as the deputy solicitor general was asserting that a school “does not have to tolerate a message that is inconsistent” with is basic educational mission.

“I find that a very, very disturbing argument,” Justice Alito said, “because schools have defined their educational mission so broadly that they can suppress all sorts of political speech and speech expressing fundamental values of the students under the banner of getting rid of speech that’s inconsistent with educational missions.” 

We’ll have to wait until later this year to hear the outcome of this case, but I’ll bet it won’t be a 9-0 ruling in Frederick’s favor.

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