from BabagaNewz Magazine, Heshvan 5768 / October 2007
Some people considered Joseph Frederick a troublemaker. Others called him a civic hero. Deborah Morse, principal at Juneau-Douglas High School in Juneau, Alaska, believed the 18-year-old senior spelled trouble, especially on January 24, 2002, when she saw Frederick, who was watching a parade near the school, display a banner stating "Bong hiTS 4 Jesus." Although Frederick was not on school grounds, Morse ordered him to remove the sign. When he refused, she confiscated it and suspended him for ten days. Frederick sued, claiming his First Amendment rights had been violated. After five years of litigation, his case came before the Supreme Court in March 2007. In a landmark ruling, the high court decided that authorities may censor student speech that "can reasonably be regarded as encouraging illegal drug use."
FREE SPEECH IN SCHOOLS
Critics of the court's decision complain that Morse v. Frederick limits free speech rights gained by students in 1969, when the Supreme Court decided Tinker v. Des Moines School District. In that famous case, the justices declared that students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech at the schoolhouse gates." In other words, the constitution allows students freedom of speech in school, provided their words do not disrupt the educational process.
WERE FREDERICK'S WORDS DISRUPTIVE?
To prove that Principal Morse did not infringe Frederick's free speech rights, her lawyers claimed the banner disrupted the educational process. Since Frederick was not on school property, Morse's attorney broadened the meaning of the phrase, "disrupt the educational process." They argued that (1) disrupting educational process means "interfering with the school's work," as it's defined by the school district's educational mission statement, (2) an important part of the school's work involves discouraging illegal drug use, and (3) Frederick's banner advocated illegal drug use-after all, a bong is slang for drug paraphernalia-therefore, his speech interfered with the school's work and could be restricted.
FREDERICK DEFENDS HIS BEHAVIOR
School authorities based their argument for censorship on the meaning of the slogan, "Bong hiTS 4 Jesus." Frederick's court brief, on the other hand, claimed he "wasn't trying to spread any idea." For him, displaying this meaningless phrase would attract attention and enable him to "assert his ability to exercise his First Amendment rights." Moreover, "several students submitted declarations explaining that they thought the banner was funny but had no idea what it meant." Because a nonsensical catchphrase could not be disruptive, Principal Morse violated Frederick's First Amendment rights.
THE JEWISH VIEW
In contrast to American democracy, where the Bill of Rights is the cornerstone of society, Judaism emphasizes personal responsibility, and frequently demands that we sacrifice personal freedoms for the good of the community. Not surprisingly, therefore, Jewish tradition readily accepts limits to freedom of speech. One example, marit ayin, avoiding the appearance of wrongdoing, is relevant to Morse v. Frederick. Marit ayin demands that we avoid permissible behaviors that resemble prohibited behavior. The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 12a) describes someone who avoids bending over to remove a splinter while standing in front of an idol, for fear that onlookers might misinterpret that behavior and conclude that idol worship is permitted.