More on the oral argument later. For now, here's Linda Greenhouse's preview of the case.
As the Olympic torch was carried through the streets of Juneau on its way to the 2002 winter games in Salt Lake City, students were allowed to leave the school grounds to watch. The school band and cheerleaders performed. With television cameras focused on the scene, Mr. Frederick and some friends unfurled a 14-foot-long banner with the inscription: “Bong Hits 4 Jesus.”
Mr. Frederick later testified that he designed the banner, using a slogan he had seen on a snowboard, “to be meaningless and funny, in order to get on television.” Ms. Morse found no humor but plenty of meaning in the sign, recognizing “bong hits” as a slang reference to using marijuana. She demanded that he take the banner down. When he refused, she tore it down, ordered him to her office, and gave him a 10-day suspension.
Mr. Fredericks’s ensuing lawsuit and the free-speech court battle that resulted, in which he has prevailed so far, is one that, classically, pits official authority against student dissent. It is the first Supreme Court case to do so directly since the court upheld the right of students to wear black arm bands to school to protest the war in Vietnam, declaring in Tinker v. Des Moines School District that “it can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
Greenhouse highlighted the way religious groups are supporting the student. (Note that Kenneth Starr represents the school):
The Juneau School Board’s mission includes opposing illegal drug use, the administration’s brief continues, citing as evidence a 1994 federal law, the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act, which requires that schools, as a condition of receiving federal money, must “convey a clear and consistent message” that using illegal drugs is “wrong and harmful.”
Mr. Starr’s main brief asserts that the court’s trilogy of cases “stands for the proposition that students have limited free speech rights balanced against the school district’s right to carry out its educational mission and to maintain discipline.” The brief argues that even if Ms. Morse applied that precept incorrectly to the facts of this case, she is entitled to immunity from suit because she could have reasonably believed that the law was on her side.
The religious groups were particularly alarmed by what they saw as the implication that school boards could define their “educational mission” as they wished and could suppress countervailing speech accordingly.
“Holy moly, look at this! To get drugs we can eliminate free speech in schools?” is how Robert A. Destro, a law professor at Catholic University, described his reaction to the briefs for the school board when the Liberty Legal Institute asked him to consider participating on the Mr. Frederick’s behalf. He quickly signed on.