ACLU Slams Supreme Court Decision in Student Free Speech Case

June 25, 2007 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – The American Civil Liberties Union today criticized the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in Morse v. Frederick, which held that Alaska public school officials did not violate a student’s free speech rights by punishing him for displaying a banner during a public event.

“We are disappointed by the Supreme Court’s ruling, which allows the censorship of student speech without any evidence that school activities were disrupted,” said Douglas K. Mertz, an ACLU cooperating attorney who argued the case before the Supreme Court.

The case arose in 2002 when Joseph Frederick, then a student at Juneau-Douglas High School in Juneau, Alaska, was suspended for 10 days for holding up a humorous sign that the principal interpreted as a pro-drug message. As the ACLU and Mertz noted, the sign caused no disruption, was displayed at the Olympic Torch Relay – a public event on public streets – and Frederick had not yet arrived at school for the day.

“The Court’s ruling imposes new restrictions on student speech rights and creates a drug exception to the First Amendment,” said Steven R. Shapiro, ACLU National Legal Director. “The decision purports to be narrow, and the Court rejected the most sweeping arguments for school censorship. But because the decision is based on the Court’s view about the value of speech concerning drugs, it is difficult to know what its impact will be in other cases involving unpopular speech.

“The Court cannot have it both ways,” Shapiro added. “Either this speech had nothing to do with drugs, which is what Joe Frederick claimed all along, or it was suppressed because school officials disagreed with the viewpoint it expressed on an issue that is very much the subject of debate in Alaska and around the country.”

Frederick said that the phrase on the banner, Bong Hits 4 Jesus, “was never meant to have any substantive meaning. It was certainly not intended as a drug or religious message. I conveyed this to the principal by explaining it was intended to be funny, subjectively interpreted by the reader and most importantly an exercise of my inalienable right to free speech.”

The ACLU noted that the ruling is limited to rights under federal law rather than Alaska state law, which is more protective of personal liberties.

“The fight to defend free speech will go on, both in this case and in others,” Mertz said. “We are grateful for the many Alaskans and Americans who rallied to defend the First Amendment and promise our continued support for civil liberties.”

The case attracted support from more than a dozen groups across the ideological spectrum, from the conservative American Center for Law and Justice, Christian Legal Society and Rutherford Institute to the Student Press Law Center, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, Drug Policy Alliance and National Coalition Against Censorship.

More information on the case is online at: www.aclu.org/frederick

The decision is online at: www.scotusblog.com/movabletype/archives/06-278_All.pdf

In addition to Mertz and Shapiro, attorneys for Frederick are Catherine Crump and Jonathan Miller of the national ACLU and Jason Brandeis, Legal Director of the ACLU of Alaska.


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