Sunday, March 18, 2007

Bong Hits, Jesus, and Right and Left Getting Along: Morse v. Frederick

The New York Times on Sunday published a story about bong hits and Jesus. What do these have to do with education? A lot actually. To be fair the story isn't about bong hits, but a great deal of the NYT story is about Jesus, specifically organized religion.

Before the Supreme Court this Monday is arguably the first explicit case regarding student dissent in the face of official authority since Tinker v. Des Moines School District's 1969 ruling that upheld the rights of students to protest the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands to school. Tinker established that school officials may restrict a student's private speech only if the speech materially and substantially interferes with school operations. Students cannot be censured merely because the student advocates a position contrary to official government policy.

Morse v. Frederick (for a lot of background see this blog), this new case involving Joseph Frederick’s 2002 dispute with his principal, Deborah Morse, at the Juneau-Douglas High School in Juneau, Alaska, has become a legal battle where sides have been drawn along incongruous lines. On one side are the Bush Administration along with NSBA, several anti-drug organizations and Counsel Kenneth Starr, yes the same Starr who exasperated the Clinton Administration for years. On the other side are the ACLU; the National Coalition Against Censorship; and a host of largely right wing religious groups including: the American Center for Law and Justice, founded by the Rev. Pat Robertson; the Christian Legal Society; the Alliance Defense Fund, an organization based in Arizona that describes its mission as “defending the right to hear and speak the Truth”; the Rutherford Institute; and Liberty Legal Institute.

NYT quotes Prof. Douglas Laycock of the University of Michigan Law School in explanation of the strange bedfellows. “The status of being a dissident unites dissidents on either side." Simply put, free speech impacts across a spectrum human endeavors including smoking pot and worshiping God in an organized fashion. This really shouldn't surprise, but perhaps in light of the current Republican Administration's penchant for harnessing the Religious Right's zeal for political purposes, perhaps the odd bedfellows do surprise. Anyhow, the whole thing makes for interesting drama and fantastic case law history for those interested in the legacies of cases like Tinker, Bethel School Dist. No. 403 v. Fraser, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, and Saxe v. State College Area School District.

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