Friday, February 16, 2007

Supreme Court Could Extend the Reach of Public Schools into Private Life

Washington, D.C. - Today Liberty Counsel filed an amicus brief before the United States Supreme Court in a case with unusual facts that could affect the free speech rights of students while they are off the public school campus. While Liberty Counsel does not endorse the student's message in the case of Morse v. Frederick, the impact of the ruling could be far-reaching and the brief urges the Court to exercise caution.
Coca-Cola and other private sponsors supported a "Winter Olympics Torch Relay" in Juneau, Alaska. Students were released from school so that they could watch the Olympic torch pass. Joseph Frederick, then an 18-year-old senior at Juneau-Douglas High School, never made it to school that morning because he got stuck in the snow in his driveway, but he made it to the sidewalk across from the school, where the torch would pass. He and some friends waited until the television cameras were pointed in their direction and then unfurled a banner reading "Bong Hits 4 Jesus." Deborah Morse, the school principal, crossed the street, grabbed and crumpled up the banner, and suspended Frederick for ten days.
The federal court of appeals ruled in Frederick's favor, finding that the school violated his First Amendment rights. The school argued that although the event was off-site and outside mandatory school hours, and although the students did not need parental permission slips to attend, as they would during a school field trip, the student should nevertheless be punished by the school. The federal appeals court framed the issue as follows: "[T]he question comes down to whether a school may, in the absence of concern about disruption of educational activities, punish and censor non-disruptive, off-campus speech by students during school-authorized activities because the speech promotes a social message contrary to the one favored by the school." The answer under controlling, long-existing precedent is plainly "No."
If the school district wins the case now before the Supreme Court, the consequence might allow schools to punish off-campus, private speech by students even when the circumstances are unrelated to a sponsored school function. Schools might therefore seek to punish religious speech deemed discriminatory or pro-family speech considered to be aimed at homosexuals.
Private speech by students off campus is no business of the public schools. School authorities may not extend their reach into the private lives of students merely because they attend a government-funded educational institution. To think otherwise is absolutely frightening.