Newseum Exhibit: ‘Bong Hits 4 Jesus’
(CNSNews.com) – A large “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” banner, which led to a 2007 Supreme Court decision that said such language was not protected free speech under the First Amendment when displayed at a public school event, is now on prominent display at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.
The Newseum says that the high court ruling “upheld the right of public school administrators to punish students for speech advocating illegal drug use,” and that since the case, “some lower courts have restricted student speech even more.”
The banner, made from a roll of white paper and the words “BONG HiTS 4 JESUS” spelled with large tape, is hanging high on a wall, on loan, as part of a Newseum display entitled “Got Freedom? The First Amendment in Schools.”
A sign at the display reads, “Is It OK to Display a ‘Bong Hits 4 Jesus’ Sign?” It then explains the history of the banner: “Joseph Frederick and other students unfurled this homemade 14-foot paper banner on a public street across from his Juneau, Alaska, high school in 2002. His principal suspended him for promoting illegal drug use. The student said it was a provocative prank. But the Supreme Court in 2007 upheld the right of public school administrators to punish students for speech advocating illegal drug use.”
“Since then, some lower courts have restricted student speech freedoms even more,” reads the plaque sign. “The high court decision in the ‘Bong Hits’ case (Morse v. Frederick) was another limitation on a landmark 1969 student speech decision, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. That decision declared that students do not ‘shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.’ But subsequent rulings have significantly diminished student speech freedoms.” It also noted that the banner is on loan to the Newseum from Joseph Frederick.
In the 2007 Supreme Court case, Justices John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito ruled in favor of the school. Justice Steven Breyer filed an opinion half in favor of the majority and half in dissent while Justice David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and John Paul Stevens dissented in full.
In his majority opinion, Chief Justice Roberts wrote, “The event in question occurred during normal school hours and was sanctioned by Morse as an approved social event at which the district’s student-conduct rules expressly applied. Teachers and administrators were among the students and were charged with supervising them. Frederick stood among other students across the street from the school and directed his banner toward the school, making it plainly visible to most students. Under these circumstances, Frederick cannot claim he was not at school.”
The banner is in the Cox First Amendment Gallery, among one of the permanent exhibits at the Newseum.
In an e-mail, the Newseum told CNSNews.com, "The Newseum contacted Mr. Frederick about including the banner in the First Amendment exhibit and it's on loan to us. Currently, there is no anticipated end to its exhibition. The banner related to a Supreme Court case in which Frederick said his First Amendment rights were violated when his school principal confiscated this banner and suspended him for displaying it on the sidewalk outside the school. The Supreme Court ruled against Frederick."
"In the gallery, it is one of the ways we examine the relationship between student rights and the First Amendment," said the Newseum.
Before reaching the Supreme Court, the US District Court for the District of Alaska ruled in favor of Morse -- for reasons comparable to the majority opinion at the Supreme Court -- before being overturned by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
To the right of the sign describing the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" banner is a sign that reads, "Student Rights. First Amendment freedoms belong to students, too, though they might not always think so. The ability to express themselves and the right to be heard are cherished concepts for most young people, and they are constitutional rights that are protected in public schools. That sounds simple, but courts have set some limits."
It continues to read, "In the wake of school shootings and tensions over violence and sex, some school districts concerned about safety and discipline have clamped down on language, dress, personal Web sites and other forms of student expression. The struggle to balance legitimate safety concerns with constitutional rights continues."
Also on display in the exhibit area are an array of items from other cases involving youth and free speech, including sixth grader Alan Newsom, who was banned from wearing an National Rife Association “Shooting Sports Camp” T-Shirt in a Albermale County, Va., school because it displayed images on the shirt.
Also on display is a picture of a Muslim student, Nashala Hearn, who was suspended for wearing her hijab to class, as well items from a Gay-Straight Alliance student group raising awareness for the LBGT community.