Bong Hits for Jesus Case

Students should note that the facts and legal arguments for this case are taken from Morse v. Frederick, a case that was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2007 challenging the suspension of a student for school for displaying a sign containing the message “Bong Hits for Jesus” at a school-supervised event. Students are encourage to read both the majority and dissenting decisions from this case (see below) to obtain a deeper understanding of the constitutional arguments that can be made by both sides. However, students should remember that they are to argue this case as if they were appearing before the Supreme Court back in 2005. Thus, you should not make specific reference to the Morse v. Frederick case, but you can surely make the arguments made by the justices in these two opinions.

FACTS: At a school-supervised event, Joseph Frederick held up a banner with the message “Bong Hits 4 Jesus,” a slang reference to marijuana smoking. Principal Deborah Morse took away the banner and suspended Frederick for ten days. She justified her actions by citing the school’s policy against the display of material that promotes the use of illegal drugs. Frederick sued under 42 U.S.C. 1983, the federal civil rights statute, alleging a violation of his First Amendment right to freedom of speech.

The District Court found no constitutional violation and ruled in favor of Morse. The court held that even if there were a violation, the principal had qualified immunity from lawsuit. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed. The Ninth Circuit cited Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which extended First Amendment protection to student speech except where the speech would cause a disturbance. Because Frederick was punished for his message rather than for any disturbance, the Circuit Court ruled, the punishment was unconstitutional.

Question Presented: Does the First Amendment allow public schools to prohibit students from displaying messages promoting the use of illegal drugs at school-supervised events?

  • Tinker v. Des Moines – this landmark case sets forth the principle that students have First Amendment Freedom of Speech rights in public schools.
  • Bethel School District v. Fraser – in this case the Supreme Court begins to set limits on the speech rights of students.
  • Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier – the Court places further limits on student speech rights, this time explaining what limits exist when the school creates the forum for speech.

(NOTE – ignore the discussion in these briefs about Qualified Immunity. Focus only on the free speech arguments!)

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