The ‘Bong Hits 4 Jesus’ Decision

23:48 Tue 26 Jun 2007. Updated: 09:10 27 Jun 2007
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I am completely disgusted by the outcome of the “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” case. It doesn’t seem that surprising, but the expansion of powers of school administrations is simply awful.

There are a number of problems with school control over student speech in general. The core idea that allows effective suspension of the First Amendment in schools is that schools could not operate if students had free speech rights like the rest of the population. My own view here is obviously (given my own feelings about school/free speach/power) going to be that this is a problem with school, and not speech, and that it is the schools that need alteration if there is a conflict. Putting that aside, let’s assume that indeed there is a conflict that must be resolved with some regulation of student free speech rights.

If that’s true, then this exception for schools must be extremely narrow—that is, constrained to speech that is clearly disruptive to the business of the school. The problem is that the Supreme Court interprets this idea of “disruptive” rather widely, and includes “disruption” that takes when the student isn’t under school supervision, when the student is in fact aiming for an audience of television cameras rather than fellow students, and when the “disruption” is clearly parodic or political (or both) in nature.

That last point is most important to me. If you allow school administrators to suppress speech that’s clearly political in nature, you’re giving them extremely broad leeway (there’s no real enforcement body that’s going to make sure they enforce their speech codes with any fairness) as well as obviously stifling chances at student dissent about the school environment itself, thus depriving them of protected input to the very area they have most concern with.

In other words, it’s a gift to authoritarian administrators, and that seems like the very last thing that students (or schools) need. The Supreme Court should be protecting free speech steadfastly and demanding that administrators have extremely good reasons for any suppression, particularly punitive suppression of public acts.

Of course, one of the other problems is that the Supreme Court, or some of the majority opinion at least, believe that they are doing this in this decision. They appear to have promoted anti-drug messages to the level of being a core educational function/value, and so regard any challenge to those messages as inherently “disruptive”, as well as somehow not being worthy of political-speech protections. They and the schools have internalized the messages of the “War on Drugs”, and are entirely willing to subordinate free speech rights to it—always very dubious territory.

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