The fourth ruling, written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., over three full dissents and one partial dissent, declared that public school officials do not violate a student's free speech rights by punishing the student for words or actions that promote a drug message.Here's my post written after the oral argument. I sympathized with the student and thought that the Court should acknowledge that his rights were violated, but thought the teacher should win on qualified immunity grounds, given the unclarity of the law:
But the Court can also say that this wasn't yet clear, which would save the principal from having to pay damages. It would, however, set the stage for the next suit for damages, as the Court can use this case to make the law clear. And it should.I'm waiting to see the opinion, but if SCOTUSblog is correct, the Court simply rejected the student's claim that he had a free speech right here.
ADDED: Here's the opinion. Chief Justice Roberts is joined by Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito, and we've got concurring opinions from Thomas (alone) and Alito (joined by Kennedy). Breyer (alone) has a mixed opinion about it (concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part). And Stevens dissents, joined by Souter [ADDED: and Ginsburg].
A big dispute between the majority and the dissent is whether "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" is a pro-drug message or just ridiculous nonsense. And which way does that cut? Is the student in a better position if we see it as a pro-drug message -- as the majority does -- because then it's political speech and entitled to more protection? No, according to the majority:
The danger here is ... serious and palpable. The particular concern to prevent student drug abuse at issue here, embodied in established school policy, extends well beyond an abstract desire to avoid controversy.Justice Stevens chides the majority for putting low value on free speech in this case and doing the opposite in today's other free speech case, Wisconsin Right to Life. Roberts answers in a footnote: "there is no serious argument that Frederick’s banner is political speech of the sort at issue in Wisconsin Right to Life."
Justice Breyer comes closest to adopting the position I recommended. He would simply say that the teacher has qualified immunity. Unlike me, he would not also use the case to clarify the law. There is a very important issue of judicial restraint here, one that Breyer has written about before. There is a case -- Saucier v. Katz, 533 U. S. 194, 201–202 (2001) -- that says that courts ought to decide first if a right was violated and then determine whether it was clear enough at the time so that the government official should be deprived of qualified immunity. This order of decisionmaking violates the precept that courts should avoid unnecessary questions of constitutional law. Moreover, the Court missed an opportunity to reach consensus (and to proceed by minimalism):
In resolving the underlying constitutional question, we produce several differing opinions. It is utterly unnecessary to do so. Were we to decide this case on the ground of qualified immunity, our decision would be unanimous, for the dissent concedes that Morse should not be held liable in damages for confiscating Frederick’s banner. Post, at 1 (opinion of Stevens, J.). And the “cardinal principle of judicial restraint” is that “if it is not necessary to decide more, it is necessary not to decide more.” PDK Labs., Inc. v. Drug Enforcement Admin., 362 F. 3d 786, 799 (CADC 2004) (Roberts, J., concurring in part and concurring in judgment).This is an appealing argument, but it has a troublesome downside. If the courts keep avoiding making the law clear, defendants continue to prevail on immunity grounds. This could mean that there are rights that we never get to learn about and that government officials are able to continue to violate with impunity.
Justice Thomas practices originalism, and that has him looking back on old school traditions:
[I]n the earliest public schools, teachers taught, and students listened. Teachers commanded, and students obeyed. Teachers did not rely solely on the power of ideas to persuade; they relied on discipline to maintain order.And no one was unfurling wacky, druggy banners.
Reviewing the school speech cases, he concludes:
I am afraid that our jurisprudence now says that students have a right to speak in schools except when they don’t—a standard continuously developed through litigation against local schools and their administrators. In my view, petitioners could prevail for a much simpler reason: As originally understood, the Constitution does not afford students a right to free speech in public schools.He's ready to erase the precedent that began with Tinker (the case about students wearing black armbands to protest the war in Vietnam):
Tinker has undermined the traditional authority of teachers to maintain order in public schools. “Once a society that generally respected the authority of teachers, deferred to their judgment, and trusted them to act in the best interest of school children, we now accept defiance, disrespect, and disorder as daily occurrences in many of our public schools.” Dupre, Should Students Have Constitutional Rights? Keeping Order in the Public Schools, 65 Geo. Wash. L. Rev. 49, 50 (1996). We need look no further than this case for an example: Frederick asserts a constitutional right to utter at a school event what is either “[g]ibberish,” ante, at 7, or an open call to use illegal drugs. To elevate such impertinence to the status of constitutional protection would be farcical and would indeed be to “surrender control of the American public school system to public school students.” Tinker, supra, at 526 (Black, J., dissenting).My, that's bracing. I'm a teacher. And I must confess that gave me a frisson. A perverse frisson?
But let's finally get around to reading what Justice Alito has to say. Joined by Justice Kennedy, this opinion represents the decisive fourth and fifth votes:
I join the opinion of the Court on the understanding that (a) it goes no further than to hold that a public school may restrict speech that a reasonable observer would interpret as advocating illegal drug use and (b) it provides no support for any restriction of speech that can plausibly be interpreted as commenting on any political or social issue, including speech on issues such as “the wisdom of the war on drugs or of legalizing marijuana for medicinal use.” See post, at 13 (Stevens, J., dissenting)....So don't forget that the school is the state and children (and their parents) are pretty much compelled into submission. Ordinary, this would move us to respect your freedom of speech up to the point of "substantial disruption." But drugs are different. They're very, very dangerous. So the school can ban speech advocating their use -- that is, their illegal use. If you want to say it is bad that drugs are illegal... well, then that's different. And this case isn't saying anything about that.
The public schools are invaluable and beneficent institutions, but they are, after all, organs of the State. When public school authorities regulate student speech, they act as agents of the State; they do not stand in the shoes of the students’ parents. It is a dangerous fiction to pretend that parents simply delegate their authority — including their authority to determine what their children may say and hear — to public school authorities. It is even more dangerous to assume that such a delegation of authority somehow strips public school authorities of their status as agents of the State. Most parents, realistically, have no choice but to send their children to a public school and little ability to influence what occurs in the school. It is therefore wrong to treat public school officials, for purposes relevant to the First Amendment , as if they were private, nongovernmental actors standing in loco parentis....
In most settings, the First Amendment strongly limits the government’s ability to suppress speech on the ground that it presents a threat of violence. See Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U. S. 444 (1969) (per curiam). But due to the special features of the school environment, school officials must have greater authority to intervene before speech leads to violence. And, in most cases, Tinker’s “substantial disruption” standard permits school officials to step in before actual violence erupts. See 393 U. S., at 508–509.
Speech advocating illegal drug use poses a threat to student safety that is just as serious, if not always as immediately obvious. As we have recognized in the past and as the opinion of the Court today details, illegal drug use presents a grave and in many ways unique threat to the physical safety of students. I therefore conclude that the public schools may ban speech advocating illegal drug use. But I regard such regulation as standing at the far reaches of what the First Amendment permits. I join the opinion of the Court with the understanding that the opinion does not endorse any further extension.
ADDED: I'm correcting what was a garbled second to the last sentence. (I'd written "If you want to say something bad it is that drugs are illegal..." instead of "If you want to say it is bad that drugs are illegal...") I apologize for the confusion.