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Morse v. Frederick

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Morse v. Frederick
Argued March 19, 2007
Decided June 25, 2007
Full case nameDeborah Morse and the Juneau School Board, et al., Petitioners v. Joseph Frederick
Docket no.06-278
Citations551 U.S. 393 (more)
127 S. Ct. 2618; 168 L. Ed. 2d 290; 2007 U.S. LEXIS 8514; 75 U.S.L.W. 4487; 20 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. S 431; 220 Ed. Law Rep. 50; 07 Cal. Daily Op. Serv. 7248; 2007 Daily Journal D.A.R. 9448
ArgumentOral argument
Case history
PriorSummary judgment for defendant granted, No. J 02-008 CV(JWS), 2003 WL 25274689 (D. Alaska May 27, 2003); rev'd, 439 F.3d 1114 (9th Cir. 2006); cert. granted, 127 S. Ct. 722 (2006)
Because schools may take steps to safeguard those entrusted to their care from speech that can be regarded as encouraging illegal drug use, the school officials in this case did not violate the First Amendment by confiscating the pro-drug banner and suspending Frederick.
Court membership
Chief Justice
John Roberts
Associate Justices
John P. Stevens · Antonin Scalia
Anthony Kennedy · David Souter
Clarence Thomas · Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Stephen Breyer · Samuel Alito
Case opinions
MajorityRoberts, joined by Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Alito
ConcurrenceAlito, joined by Kennedy
DissentStevens, joined by Souter, Ginsburg
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amends. I, XIV; 42 U.S.C. § 1983

Morse v. Frederick, 551 U.S. 393 (2007), is a United States Supreme Court case where the Court held, 5–4, that the First Amendment does not prevent educators from prohibiting or punishing student speech that is reasonably viewed as promoting illegal drug use.[1][2]

In 2002, Juneau-Douglas High School principal Deborah Morse suspended student Joseph Frederick after he displayed a banner reading "BONG HiTS 4 JESUS" [sic] across the street from the school during the 2002 Winter Olympics torch relay.[3] Frederick sued, claiming his constitutional rights to free speech were violated. His suit was dismissed by the federal district court, but on appeal, the Ninth Circuit reversed the ruling, concluding that Frederick's speech rights were violated. The case then went on to the Supreme Court.

Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, concluded that school officials did not violate the First Amendment. To do so, he made three legal determinations. First, under the existing school speech precedents Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969), Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser (1986) and Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988), students do have free speech rights in school,[4] but those rights are subject to limitations in the school environment that would not apply to the speech rights of adults outside school.[5] Supreme Court cases since Tinker have generally sided with schools when student conduct rules have been challenged on free speech grounds.[6] Second, the "school speech" doctrine applied because Frederick's speech occurred at a school-supervised event. Finally, the Court held that the speech could be restricted in a school environment, even though it wasn't disruptive under the Tinker standard, because "the government interest in stopping student drug abuse...allow[s] schools to restrict student expression that they reasonably regard as promoting illegal drug use."[7][2][8]

Background and procedural history[edit]

The original banner hung in the Newseum in Washington, DC.

On January 24, 2002, students and staff at Juneau-Douglas High School in Alaska were permitted to leave classes[10] to watch the Olympic Torch pass by as part of the 2002 Winter Olympics torch relay. Joseph Frederick, who was late for school that day, joined some friends on the sidewalk across from the high school, off school grounds.[11] Frederick and his friends waited for the television cameras so they could unfurl a banner reading "BONG HiTS 4 JESUS". Frederick was quoted as saying he had first seen the phrase on a snowboard sticker.[12] When they displayed the banner, then-principal Deborah Morse ran across the street and seized it.[nb 1]

Morse initially suspended Frederick for five days for violating the school district's anti-drug policy, but increased the suspension to ten days after Frederick quoted Thomas Jefferson.[nb 2] Frederick administratively appealed his suspension to the superintendent who denied his appeal but limited it to the time Frederick had already spent out of school prior to his appeal to the superintendent (eight days). Frederick then appealed to the Juneau School Board, which upheld the suspension on March 19, 2002.

District court[edit]

On April 25, 2002, Frederick filed a civil rights lawsuit (under 42 U.S.C. § 1983) against Morse and the school board, claiming they violated his federal and state constitutional rights to free speech.[3] He sought a declaratory relief (for a declaratory judgment that his First Amendment rights had been violated), injunctive relief (for an injunction to remove the reference to the ten-day suspension from his school records), and monetary awards (compensatory damages, punitive damages, and attorney's fees).[14]

The United States District Court for the District of Alaska dismissed Frederick's case on summary judgment.[15] The district court reasoned that Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser, as opposed to Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, governed Frederick's school speech. Under this premise, the Court ruled that, given the stipulated facts, Morse and the school board had not infringed Frederick's First Amendment rights, because Morse had reasonably interpreted the banner as contravening the school's policies on drug abuse prevention.[14][nb 3]

Ninth Circuit[edit]

The Ninth Circuit reversed the decision of the District Court. The unanimous panel decision was written by Judge Andrew Kleinfeld.[16] First, the Court decided that the incident should be interpreted under school-speech doctrines, even though Frederick was standing across the street, and not on school grounds.[nb 4]

Thus, for Judge Kleinfeld, "the 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'."[17] To reach this determination, the Court inquired whether Frederick's constitutional rights were violated.[nb 5]. The Court, in holding (contra the District Court) that Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District provided the controlling analysis, distinguished Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser and Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier.

Juneau school district superintendent Peggy Cowan stated, "My concern is that [the court's ruling] could compromise our ability to send a consistent message against the use of illegal drugs."[18]

Certiorari and oral arguments[edit]

The school board petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review the Ninth Circuit's decision. On December 1, 2006, the Court accepted the case.[19]

Oral arguments were heard on the morning of March 19, 2007.[20] Kenneth Starr first spoke on behalf of the petitioning school principal. He described the rule in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, as "that there is a right to political speech subject to disruption—that the speech not be disruptive".[21] He defined the disruptiveness in general terms as behavior inimical to the educational mission of the school, and in specific terms as a violation of the school's announced policy to enforce and support laws with respect to the control of marijuana (and other laws in general). Starr also cited the cases of Bethel School District v. Fraser, and Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier.

Starr noted that in Tinker there was no written policy; it was an issue of "standardless discretion" being exercised.[22] That case was said to be concerned with school disciplinary actions "casting a pall of orthodoxy to prevent the discussion of ideas".[23] Justice David Souter remarked that Bong Hits 4 JESUS "sounds like just a kid's provocative statement to me."[24] Starr responded by saying "the key is to allow the school official to interpret the message as long as that interpretation is reasonable."[25]

Deputy Solicitor-General Edwin Kneedler spoke on behalf of the U.S. government in support of the petitioner. He said: "The First Amendment does not require public school officials to stand aside and permit students who are entrusted to their supervision and care to promote or encourage the illegal use of drugs."[26] He cited the cases of Board of Education v. Earls and Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier in his favor.

Representing Frederick, Douglas K. Mertz opened, "This is a case about free speech. It is not about drugs." Chief Justice John Roberts responded: "It's a case about money. Your client wants money from the principal personally for her actions in this case." Mertz emphasized that the torch relay was not school-sponsored; that he had not stepped on school property at all before presenting the banner; that "BONG HiTS 4 JESUS" was intended to be—and was regarded as—a purely humorous message; and that the unfurling of the banner did not cause any disruption. Based on these facts, he concludes, his case "does not present the issue of school authority over student expressions on campus or in a school-sponsored activity."

Starr rebutted. He cited Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton and Board of Education v. Earls as cases demonstrative of the Court's strong past stances on matter related to combating the "scourge of drugs". In closing and in summary, he said:

To promote drugs is utterly inconsistent with the educational mission of the school. The court has spoken more broadly with respect to the need to defer to school officials in identifying the educational mission. We know that there are constitutional limits (to lawful political expression). Those limits are captured in Tinker. A passive pure political speech that reflects on the part of the school board a standardless discretionary effort to squelch any kind of controversial discussion, that casts a pall of orthodoxy over the class room: we are light years away from that.[27]


Opinion of the Court[edit]

Chief Justice Roberts, writing for a majority of five justices, concluded that the school officials did not violate the First Amendment by confiscating the pro-drug banner and suspending the student responsible for it. After reciting the background in Part I of the opinion, in Part II he determined that "school speech" doctrine should apply because Frederick's speech occurred "at a school event"; Part III determined that the speech was "reasonably viewed as promoting illegal drug use"; and Part IV, inquired whether a principal may legally restrict that speech, concluding that she could—under the three existing First Amendment school speech precedents, other Constitutional jurisprudence relating to schools, and a school's "important—indeed, perhaps compelling interest" in deterring drug use by students.

Speech falls under school speech jurisprudence[edit]

First, Roberts determined that the Court should analyze Frederick's speech under the comparatively strict doctrine of "school speech"—rejecting "at the outset" Frederick's contention that the case should instead be considered under ordinary free-speech jurisprudence.[28] While conceding that past precedent reflects "some uncertainty at the outer boundaries as to when courts should apply school-speech precedents",[29] Roberts added: "but not on these facts".[28] Roberts reiterated the circumstances, then explained: "Under these circumstances, we agree with the superintendent that Frederick cannot 'stand in the midst of his fellow students, during school hours, at a school-sanctioned activity and claim he is not at school.'"[28]

Next, Roberts determined that the principal's conclusion that Frederick's banner "advocated the use of illegal drugs" was reasonable. Acknowledging that the banner's message was "cryptic", nevertheless it was undeniably a "reference to illegal drugs".[30] In reaching this conclusion, Roberts contrasted "the paucity of alternative meanings the banner might bear" against the fact that the two immediately available interpretations of the words support this conclusion:

First, the phrase could be interpreted as an imperative: "[Take] bong hits ..."—a message equivalent, as Morse explained in her declaration, to "smoke marijuana" or "use an illegal drug". Alternatively, the phrase could be viewed as celebrating drug use—"bong hits [are a good thing]", or "[we take] bong hits".

And even if that second interpretation does not support the principal's conclusions that the banner advocated the use of illegal drugs,

we discern no meaningful distinction between celebrating illegal drug use in the midst of fellow students and outright advocacy or promotion. See Guiles v. Marineau, 461 F.3d 320, 328 (CA2 2006) (discussing the present case and describing the sign as "a clearly pro-drug banner")

Wrapping up this discussion, Roberts rejected the two alternative accounts for Frederick's speech provided in the dissent: first, the dissent noted that Frederick "just wanted to get on television", which it characterized as a "credible and uncontradicted explanation for the message". Roberts rejoined: "But that is a description of Frederick's motive for displaying the banner; it is not an interpretation of what the banner says." Second, the dissent emphasized the importance of political speech and the need to foster "national debate about a serious issue". Roberts rejoined that "not even Frederick argues that the banner conveys any sort of political or religious message"; "this is plainly not a case about political debate over the criminalization of drug use or possession."

Finally, Roberts inquired whether a principal may restrict such speech. He concluded that she can.[31] He began by reviewing the court's school speech jurisprudence:

  • First, Roberts recapitulated that student expression may be suppressed only if school officials reasonably conclude that it will "materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school"—observing however that this doctrine came from a case (Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School Dist.) in which the students were engaging in "political speech" in "a silent, passive expression of opinion, unaccompanied by any disorder or disturbance" (wearing armbands, to express "disapproval of the Vietnam hostilities and their advocacy of a truce, to make their views known, and, by their example, to influence others to adopt them". Id., at 514), and in which "[t]he only interest the Court discerned underlying the school's actions was the "mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint", or "an urgent wish to avoid the controversy which might result from the expression". Roberts commented on this opinion with a quote from Virginia v. Black—that political speech is "at the core of what the First Amendment is designed to protect". 538 U.S. 343, 365 (2003).
  • Second, Roberts cited Bethel School Dist. No. 403 v. Fraser. The jurisprudence of Fraser is controversial, but Roberts declined to apply or resolve the disputed holding of that case ("We need not resolve this debate to decide this case"); instead, he explained that "[f]or present purposes, it is enough to distill from Fraser two basic principles":
  1. that "the constitutional rights of students in public school are not automatically coextensive with the rights of adults in other settings" ("in light of the special characteristics of the school environment").[32]
  2. that the "substantial disruption" analysis prescribed by Tinker "is not absolute" (i.e., it is flexible/optional).[33]
  • Third, Roberts cited the most recent student speech case, Hazelwood School Dist. v. Kuhlmeier. In that case, the Court permitted a school to "exercise editorial control over the style and content of student speech in school-sponsored expressive activities" (declining to publish articles in the school paper that "the public might reasonably perceive to bear the imprimatur of the school") "so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns". Roberts found that this case, though factually distinct, was "nevertheless instructive because it confirms both principles cited above."

Roberts then cited cases that cited Tinker in the course of interpreting the qualified status that other Constitutional rights acquire in schools—Vernonia School Dist. 47J v. Acton, New Jersey v. T. L. O., Board of Ed. of Independent School Dist. No. 92 of Pottawatomie Cty. v. Earls. In light of these concerns, Roberts devoted his lengthiest analysis to the government's "important — indeed, perhaps compelling interest" in deterring drug use by students.[34] To this point, the opinion cited statistics illustrating the problems of youth drug abuse. It further noted that part of a school's educational mission is "to educate students about the dangers of illegal drugs and to discourage their use."[35] The District Court also noted "peer pressure is perhaps 'the single most important factor leading school children to take drugs'."[36] The Court's interpretation of Frederick's banner deemed the banner as a type of peer pressure. Based on these concerns, the opinion concluded that the principal's actions were motivated by a "serious and palpable" danger of drug abuse quite different from the amorphous fears of anti-war sentiment at play in Tinker.[36]

In Tinker, the school principal had punished students for wearing black anti-war armbands based on his "undifferentiated fear or apprehension of disturbance" or "mere desire to avoid ... discomfort and unpleasantness."[36] Here, however, the concern about student drug abuse "extends well beyond an abstract desire to avoid controversy."[36] Principal Morse's failure to act against the banner "would send a powerful message to the students in her charge, including Frederick, about how serious the school was about the dangers of illegal drug use."[37] The First Amendment, concluded the opinion, "does not require schools to tolerate at school events student expression that contributes to those dangers."[37]


Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a concurrence that argued that students in public schools do not have a right to free speech and that Tinker should be overturned. Thomas wrote, "In my view, the history of public education suggests that the First Amendment, as originally understood, does not protect student speech in public schools."[38] He praised Hugo Black's dissenting opinion on Tinker and called it "prophetic". Thomas cited the doctrine of in loco parentis, meaning "in place of the parent", in his opinion. He traced the history of public education in America back to its colonial roots. According to Thomas, because originally public schools were intended to substitute for private tutors, public schools could discipline students as they liked and had a far stronger hand in what happened in the classroom. "In short", he continues, "in the earliest public schools, teachers taught, and students listened. Teachers commanded, and students obeyed."[39] He opined that because parents entrusted the care of their children to teachers, teachers have a right to act in the place of parents during school hours. Therefore, teachers should be able to discipline students if necessary. Thomas lambasted Tinker for "usurping [the local school district as a] traditional authority for the judiciary".[40] Thomas believed that Frederick was neither speaking gibberish nor openly advocating drug use, but granting such an impertinence constitutional protection "would... be to 'surrender control of the American public school system to public school students'."[40]

Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Justice Anthony Kennedy, wrote a concurrence indicating that he agreed with the majority opinion to the extent that:

(a) it goes no further than to hold that a public school may restrict speech that a reasonable observer would interpret as advocating illegal drug use and (b) it provides no support for any restriction of speech that can plausibly be interpreted as commenting on any political or social issue, including speech on issues such as "the wisdom of the war on drugs or of legalizing marijuana for medicinal use".[41]

Alito agreed that Morse did not violate Frederick's First Amendment rights and emphasized in his concurrence that the holding only applies to students who advocate illegal drug use. He opposed the "educational mission" and in loco parentis analysis in favor of a "special characteristic" of schools that he identifies to be ensuring the physical safety of the students. Alito concluded that an exception must be made to the First Amendment free speech guarantee to protect the students; since according to Alito, advocating illegal drugs possibly leads to violence. But Alito insisted that this small reduction of what is protected by the First Amendment is "at the far reaches of what the First Amendment permits."[42]

Justice Stephen Breyer concurred in the judgment in part and dissented in part, arguing that the Court should not have directly answered the First Amendment question in the case, but rather decided it based on qualified immunity. Qualified immunity is an affirmative defense that requires courts to enter judgment in favor of a government employee accused of violating individual rights unless the employee's conduct violates "clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known".[43] Because it was not clear whether the school principal's actions in taking down the banner violated the First Amendment, Breyer would have simply issued a narrow decision indicating that she was shielded by qualified immunity and gone no further.[44]


Justice John Paul Stevens, in a dissent joined by Justice David Souter and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, argued that "the Court does serious violence to the First Amendment in upholding—indeed, lauding—a school's decision to punish Frederick for expressing a view with which it disagreed."[45] Stevens wrote:

... the school's interest in protecting its students from exposure to speech 'reasonably regarded as promoting illegal drug use' ... cannot justify disciplining Frederick for his attempt to make an ambiguous statement to a television audience simply because it contained an oblique reference to drugs. The First Amendment demands more, indeed, much more.[46]

Stevens criticized the majority decision as one that "trivializes the two cardinal principles upon which Tinker rests", because it "upholds a punishment meted out on the basis of a listener's disagreement with her understanding (or, more likely, misunderstanding) of the speaker's viewpoint".[47] Moreover, he noted, "Encouraging drug use might well increase the likelihood that a listener will try an illegal drug, but that hardly justifies censorship".[47] "[C]arving out pro-drug speech for uniquely harsh treatment finds no support in our case law and is inimical to the values protected by the First Amendment."[48]

Stevens also took issue with the majority's interpretation of the banner as being a serious incitement to drug use:

Admittedly, some high school students (including those who use drugs) are dumb. Most students, however, do not shed their brains at the schoolhouse gate, and most students know dumb advocacy when they see it. The notion that the message on this banner would actually persuade either the average student or even the dumbest one to change his or her behavior is most implausible.[49]

Stevens argued that it would be "profoundly unwise to create special rules for speech about drug and alcohol use", pointing to the historical examples of both opposition to the Vietnam War and resistance to Prohibition in the 1920s.[50] Pointing to the current debate over medical marijuana, Stevens concluded, "Surely our national experience with alcohol should make us wary of dampening speech suggesting—however inarticulately—that it would be better to tax and regulate marijuana than to persevere in a futile effort to ban its use entirely."[51]

Academic commentary[edit]

Melinda Cupps Dickler, in her article "The Morse Quartet: Student Speech and the First Amendment" in the Loyola Law Review,[52] provided a survey of commentary that followed in the immediate aftermath of the case: Some commentators have suggested that Morse both demonstrated a division among the Justices on student speech rights[53] and continued Fraser's and Kuhlmeier's erosion of students' First Amendment rights.[54] She regards this suggestion as "not surprising" given the outcome of the decision, the plain language of the holding, and the dissenting Justices' charge that the opinion did "serious violence to the First Amendment".[55] She adds that other commentators have asserted that while Morse did not dramatically change the law regarding student speech, it failed to answer any of the questions left by the Tinker trilogy.[56] She notes that these questions—what First Amendment protection is owed to student speech, and how courts should analyze its censorship—are currently significant as schools struggle with the issues of discriminatory student speech or hate speech,[nb 6] and student speech threatening violence.

Known as the "true threat" doctrine, this area of student speech law became particularly relevant after the occurrence of student-conducted shootings at various U.S. schools, such as Columbine High School. These tragic events led to a significant number of cases and articles on the subject of school violence. For example, in Wisniewski, a student was suspended after school officials learned of an instant messenger icon he had created that depicted the shooting of his English teacher. 494 F.3d at 35. In one of the few decisions citing to Morse, the Second Circuit declined to consider whether the true threat doctrine was relevant, and instead applied Tinker's substantial disruption test. Id. at 38–39. The court held that the school did not violate the student's First Amendment rights by suspending him because it was reasonably foreseeable that the icon would come to school officials' attention and cause a disruption at school. Id. at 39–40. For a discussion of the true threat doctrine's application to student speech, see Andrew P. Stanner, Note, Toward an Improved True Threat Doctrine for Student Speakers, 81 NYU Law Review, 385 (2006). For additional discussion of the true threat doctrine, see generally Richard Salgado, Protecting Student Speech Rights While Increasing School Safety: School Jurisdiction and the Search for Warning Signs in a Post-Columbine/Red Lake Environment, 2005 BYU Law Review, 1371 (citing to many articles on the true threat doctrine); Jennifer E. Rothman, "Freedom of Speech and True Threats", 25 Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy 283 (2001) (arguing for expansion of the circuit courts' traditional one-prong "reasonable listener" or "reasonable speaker" test for determining whether speech constitutes a true threat by proposing the addition of (1) subjective intent, and (2) actor prongs).[52]

Further, "such questions are always paramount because schools are the training grounds for our nation's citizens and future leaders."[52] Dickler noted that "The few courts that have discussed Morse have disagreed about the breadth of its holding,"[52]

Kenneth Starr, former Dean at Pepperdine University School of Law, and who argued for Morse before the Supreme Court, introduced a symposium about the case[57] noting that Chief Justice Roberts "sought to keep the decision quite narrow", limiting the case "to the issue of public school administrators' ability to keep the educational process free from messages about illegal drugs" and drawing from the Court's existing student speech jurisprudence that "permitted school administrators broad discretion to keep out of the educational environment antisocial messages celebrating drug use".[57]

Leading constitutional law scholar Erwin Chemerinsky participated in the same symposium, exploring how this decision would be understood and applied by school officials, school boards, and lower court judges. He suggested that the opinion was misguided and—from a First Amendment perspective—highly undesirable, arguing that the decision cannot be justified under existing First Amendment principles, that it could be seen as authorizing punishment of students for speech that is deemed distasteful or offensive, even just juvenile. However, he noted Justice Alito's concurring opinion, which suggests that the majority opinion might be exceedingly narrow and based on a very unusual factual context; Chemerinsky noted that if Justice Alito's opinion is seen as defining the scope of the holding, then the case establishes only the power of schools to punish speech encouraging illegal drug use rather than giving school officials great discretion to punish student speech. Thus, despite the fact that Morse v. Frederick is consistent with decisions from the Supreme Court and lower federal courts over the last two decades, his hope is that Chief Justice Roberts's majority opinion will be read through the prism of Justice Alito's concurring opinion, thereby having little effect on the already very limited First Amendment rights of students.[57]

Groups involved[edit]

The American Civil Liberties Union directly participated in this case on the side of Joseph Frederick. The Center for Individual Rights, National Coalition Against Censorship, and other groups that advocate First Amendment protection filed amici curiae in support of Frederick.[58] Students for Sensible Drug Policy also noted that banning drug-related speech would undermine their ability to have chapters in public schools. The American Center for Law and Justice, and Rutherford Institute, and several other Christian right groups also filed briefs on the side of Frederick, reasoning that if schools could ban "offensive" speech they would also be able to prohibit religious speech with which administrators disagree.[59][60] On this point, the Christian right groups prevailed, as the Supreme Court explicitly declined to hold that school boards could discipline "offensive" speech, noting that "much political and religious speech might be perceived as offensive to some" and the concern is "not that Frederick's speech was offensive, but that it was reasonably viewed as promoting illegal drug use."

The National School Boards Association supported Morse and the Juneau school district, arguing that schools should be able to regulate controversial speech.[61] U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement filed an amicus brief in support of the school district's decision to prohibit controversial speech.[62] On March 19, 2007, Students for Sensible Drug Policy organized a free speech rally at the Supreme Court during oral arguments.[63] The Drug Policy Alliance and the National Youth Rights Association assisted with the rally which brought dozens of students from across the country to the court steps.


The U.S. Supreme Court decision did not resolve all of the issues in the case. Frederick claimed his speech rights under the Constitution of Alaska were violated, and the issue was argued in front of the Alaska Court of Appeals in September 2008.[64] However, the school district agreed to settle out of court before the judges reached a decision. In November 2008, the district paid Frederick $45,000 to settle all remaining claims and agreed to hire a neutral constitutional law expert to lead a forum on student speech at Juneau-Douglas High School by the end of the school year.[64] Frederick later said that while he was proud of himself for standing up for his rights, he regretted "the bad precedent set by the ruling."[65]

The original "BONG HiTS 4 JESUS" banner hung in the First Amendment gallery of the now-defunct Newseum in Washington, D.C.[66]

See also[edit]

Explanatory notes[edit]

  1. ^ The Ninth Circuit, which held in favor of Frederick, noted:

    There was disorder at the torch passing, but the uncontradicted evidence is that it had nothing to do with Frederick and his fellow sign-holders. Coca-Cola handed out samples in plastic bottles, and students threw them at each other. Students threw snowballs. Some students got into fights. But Frederick and his group did not participate in these disorders, saving their [*1116] energy for what they hoped would be their nationally televised sign display. And, the disruption that took place occurred before the display of the banner, so it could not have been caused by it.

    In subsequent days, there was some pro-drug graffiti in the high school that the principal thought was "sparked" by the banner, but the principal did not rip down the sign at the rally because she anticipated or was concerned about such possible consequences. When Principal Morse crossed the street from the school and confronted Frederick about the banner, he asked "What about the Bill of Rights and freedom of speech?" She told him to take the banner down because she "felt that it violated the policy against displaying offensive material, including material that advertises or promotes use of illegal drugs", and she grabbed it from him and crumpled it up.[13]

  2. ^ The Ninth Circuit, which held in favor of Frederick, noted that:

    Frederick says that the principal initially told him that he was suspended for five days, but when he quoted Thomas Jefferson to her, she doubled it. The principal says that she does not remember whether he quoted Jefferson to her, but that was not why the suspension was ten days. Frederick says that an assistant principal told him that the Bill of Rights does not exist in schools and does not apply until after graduation, but Principal Morse says that the assistant principal "made some remark to the effect that students do not have the same first amendment rights as adults".[9]

  3. ^ The Court also ruled that, if Frederick's constitutional rights had been violated, Appellees had qualified immunity.
  4. ^ The Ninth Circuit elaborated:

    One amicus, Drug Policy Alliance, argues that we should analyze this not as a student speech case, but simply as speech on a public sidewalk. That would make the case analogous to a student having an after-school job at a video store that rents out Cheech and Chong tapes, or a student driving a car on public streets with a "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" bumper sticker. Were this factually such a case, the law would be easy indeed, but the facts established by the submissions on summary judgment make this a student speech case. Even though Frederick never got to school that morning, that was only because he got stuck in his driveway because of the snow. School had started and the students were released to watch the Olympic torch pass. And even though supervision of most students was minimal or nonexistent, the school could have supervised them more if it chose to, as it did with the gym class and perhaps the pep band and cheerleaders. Frederick was a student, and school was in session. There is no genuine issue of fact material to the decision. Frederick's display was not in a class. Frederick and the other students who displayed the sign did not participate in any of the disorderly conduct of the students who threw snowballs or plastic Coca-Cola miniature sample bottles. The school principal and school board do not claim that the display disrupted or was expected to disrupt any classroom work. They concede that their objection to the display, and the reason why the principal ripped down the banner, was not concern that it would cause disruption but that its message would be understood as advocating or promoting illegal drug use. Frederick says that the words were just nonsense meant to attract television cameras because they were funny. We nevertheless proceed on the basis that the banner expressed a positive sentiment about marijuana use, however vague and nonsensical.[17]

  5. ^ The Ninth Circuit explained:

    Because this is a section 1983 case in which the Appellees asserted qualified immunity, we are required to proceed in accord with Saucier v. Katz and determine first whether Frederick's constitutional rights were violated. This is an "as applied" challenge, not a "facial" challenge. Frederick argues that his rights were violated as the regulations were applied to him. Under Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, they plainly were.

    (See also: Saucier v. Katz.)
  6. ^ Dickler adds,

    It is currently a significant issue whether some viewpoint discrimination in schools is necessary to protect students from discriminatory student speech criticizing their race, sexual orientation, religion, or other protected personal characteristics. See, e.g., Kathleen Hart, Note, Sticks and Stones and Shotguns at School: The Ineffectiveness of Constitutional Anti-Bullying Legislation as a Response to School Violence, 39 Ga. L. Rev. 1109, 1128-34 (2005) (discussing recent cases challenging schools' anti-discrimination, anti-harassment, or dress code policies on First Amendment grounds); Justin T. Peterson, Comment, School Authority v. Students' First Amendment Rights: Is Subjectivity Strangling the Free Mind at Its Source?, 3 Michigan State Law Review 931, 964-77 (2005) (proposing a five-part "viewpoint neutral rule" for student speech that incorporates parts of Tinker, Fraser, and Kuhlmeier, and prohibits hate speech under Fraser's offensiveness prong); see also Cindy Lavorato & John Saunders, Commentary, Public High School Students, T-Shirts and Free Speech: Untangling the Knots, Educ. Law Rep., July 13, 2006, at 1, 6-11, available on Westlaw at 209 Ed. Law Rep. 1 (discussing recent federal appellate court decisions of First Amendment challenges by students to disciplinary actions for wearing t-shirts proclaiming homophobic, racist, or anti-religious messages).[52]


  1. ^ "Morse et al. v. Frederick" (PDF). SupremeCourt.gov. Supreme Court of the United States. June 25, 2007. Retrieved April 16, 2020.
  2. ^ a b "Facts and Case Summary - Morse v. Frederick". United States Courts. The Court held that schools may "take steps to safeguard those entrusted to their care from speech that can reasonably be regarded as encouraging illegal drug use" without violating a student's First Amendment rights.
  3. ^ a b Mears, Bill (March 19, 2007). "High court hears 'Bong hits 4 Jesus' case". CNN.
  4. ^ Cf. Common law in loco parentis where students had no constitutional rights in school.
  5. ^ "Know Your Rights: Student Rights". ACLU.
  6. ^ "Juneau School Board Policy No. 5520 states: “The Board specifically prohibits any assembly or public expression that … advocates the use of substances that are illegal to minors … .” In addition, Juneau School Board Policy No. 5850 subjects “[p]upils who participate in approved social events and class trips” to the same student conduct rules that apply during the regular school program." Morse v. Frederick at 398
  7. ^ Russo, Charles J. (2008). Encyclopedia of Education Law Volume 1. Sage Publications. p. 560.
  8. ^ Denning, Brannon P. (2019). Glannon Guide to Constitutional Law. Wolters Kluwer.
  9. ^ a b Frederick v. Morse, 439 F.3d 1114, 1116 (9th Cir. 2006).
  10. ^ The Ninth Circuit, which held in favor of Frederick, noted:

    Frederick says that students were simply released from school so that they could watch the privately sponsored Olympic Torch being carried through a public street, and a student affidavit he submitted pointed out that the students did not have to obtain parental permission slips to be released, as is the routine for field trips and other supervised events off the school premises. Principal Morse says that the release was "an approved social event or class trip", noting that the pep band played as the torch passed the school, the cheerleaders were out in uniform to greet the torch-bearers, and teachers supervised.[9]

  11. ^ Morse, 551 U.S. at 397.
  12. ^ Barnes, Robert (March 13, 2007). "Justices to Hear Landmark Free-Speech Case". The Washington Post.
  13. ^ Frederick v. Morse, 439 F.3d at 1115-1116.
  14. ^ a b Morse, 551 U.S. at 399.
  15. ^ Frederick v. Morse, No. J 02-008 CV(JWS), 2003 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 27270 (D. Alaska May 27, 2003).
  16. ^ Frederick v. Morse, 439 F.3d 1114.
  17. ^ a b Frederick v. Morse, 439 F.3d at 1118.
  18. ^ Sutton, Ann (March 15, 2006). "9th Circuit: 'Bong Hits 4 Jesus' Banner Was Free Speech". Law.com. Archived from the original on March 11, 2007. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  19. ^ 127 S. Ct. 722.
  20. ^ Transcript of Oral Argument, Morse v. Frederick (No. 06-278).
  21. ^ Transcript of Oral Argument at 4, Morse v. Frederick (No. 06-278).
  22. ^ Transcript of Oral Argument at 10, Morse v. Frederick (No. 06-278).
  23. ^ Transcript of Oral Argument at 11, Morse v. Frederick (No. 06-278).
  24. ^ Transcript of Oral Argument at 17, Morse v. Frederick (No. 06-278).
  25. ^ Transcript of Oral Argument at 18, Morse v. Frederick (No. 06-278).
  26. ^ Transcript of Oral Argument at 19, Morse v. Frederick (No. 06-278).
  27. ^ Transcript of Oral Argument at 59, Morse v. Frederick (No. 06-278).
  28. ^ a b c Morse, 551 U.S. at 400-01.
  29. ^ Here the court provided the following string citation:
    Porter v. Ascension Parish School Bd., 393 F. 3d 608, 615, n. 22 (CA5 2004)
  30. ^ Morse, 551 U.S. at 402.
  31. ^ Morse, 551 U.S. at 403.
  32. ^ Here, Roberts cited Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15 (1971).
  33. ^ Here, Roberts cited Hazelwood School Dist. v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260, 271, n. 4 (1988) (disagreeing with the proposition that there is "no difference between the First Amendment analysis applied in Tinker and that applied in Fraser", and noting that the holding in Fraser was not based on any showing of substantial disruption).
  34. ^ Morse, 551 U.S. at 394-95.
  35. ^ Morse, 551 U.S. at 398-99.
  36. ^ a b c d Morse, 551 U.S. at 408.
  37. ^ a b Morse, 551 U.S. at 410.
  38. ^ Morse, 551 U.S. at 410-11 (Thomas, J., concurring).
  39. ^ Morse, 551 U.S. at 412 (Thomas, J., concurring).
  40. ^ a b Morse, 551 U.S. at 421 (Thomas, J., concurring).
  41. ^ Morse, 551 U.S. at 422 (Alito, J., concurring).
  42. ^ Morse, 551 U.S. at 426 (Alito, J., concurring).
  43. ^ Morse, 551 U.S. at 429 (Breyer, J., concurring).
  44. ^ Morse, 551 U.S. at 425-26 (Breyer, J., concurring).
  45. ^ Morse, 551 U.S. at 435 (Stevens, J., dissenting).
  46. ^ Morse, 551 U.S. at 434 (Stevens, J., dissenting).
  47. ^ a b Morse, 551 U.S. at 437 (Stevens, J., dissenting).
  48. ^ Morse, 551 U.S. at 438-39 (Stevens, J., dissenting).
  49. ^ Morse, 551 U.S. at 444 (Stevens, J., dissenting).
  50. ^ Morse, 551 U.S. at 446-47 (Stevens, J., dissenting).
  51. ^ Morse, 551 U.S. at 448 (Stevens, J., dissenting).
  52. ^ a b c d e Melinda Cupps Dickler (Visiting Assistant Professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law, Illinois Institute of Technology), "The Morse Quartet: Student Speech And The First Amendment", 53 Loyola Law Review, 355. doi:10.2139/ssrn.1009601
  53. ^ See, e.g., Linda Greenhouse, "Vote Against Banner Shows Divide on Speech in Schools", The New York Times, June 26, 2007, at A18, available at 2007 WLNR 12010165 (describing the Court as "deeply split").
  54. ^ For example, compare: National Review Online, A Bong Hit to Free Speech, Posting of David French to Phi Beta Cons, https://web.archive.org/web/20110805202813/http://www.nationalreview.com/phi-beta-cons/44149/bong-hit-free-speech (June 25, 2007, 12:19 P.M. EST) (arguing that although Morse seems narrow, it "dramatically expands the scope of state authority over the speech of school children"), and Julie Hilden, The Supreme Court's "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" First Amendment Decision: How Its Betrayal of Free Speech Principles May Have Influenced a Recent Federal Appellate Decision, FindLaw, July 9, 2007, http://writ.news.findlaw.com/hilden/20070709.html (arguing that Morse will influence courts to further curtail student speech rights), with Opinio Juris, "On Winning, Losing, and Things InBetween: A (Preliminary) Comparative Legal Analysis of Morse v. Frederick", posting of Ronald Krotoszynski to "Opinio Juris on Winning, Losing, and Things Inbetween: A (Preliminary) Comparative Legal Analysis of Morse v. Frederick". Archived from the original on September 3, 2009. Retrieved April 13, 2010. (July 18, 2007, 0021 EST) (noting that the media has generally regarded Morse as "a loss for advocates of student speech rights", but arguing that Morse is "more about the culture wars over drugs, sex, and rock and roll than a fundamental rethinking of whether Tinker makes sense in the contemporary public schools").
  55. ^ Morse, 127 S. Ct. at 2629
  56. ^ Clay Calvert & Robert D. Richards, "Opinion Morse v. Frederick: A Narrow Win For Schools", National Law Journal, Aug. 2007, at 26, available on Westlaw at 8/1/2007 Nat'l L.J. 26.
  57. ^ a b c "Symposium: Speech and the Public Schools After Morse v. Frederick: How Will Morse v. Frederick Be Applied?" 12 Lewis & Clark Law Review, 1
  58. ^ "Morse v. Frederick, 06-278". American Civil Liberties Union. Retrieved June 26, 2007.
  59. ^ "ACLJ Urges Supreme Court to Protect Free Speech Rights of Students". American Center for Law & Justice. Archived from the original on February 22, 2007. Retrieved March 3, 2007.
  60. ^ "Rutherford Institute amicus brief" (PDF). American Civil Liberties Union.
  61. ^ Biskupic, Joan (February 28, 2007). "High court case tests limits of student speech rights". USA Today.
  62. ^ "No. 06-278: Morse v. Frederick - Amicus (Merit)". United States Department of Justice. Archived from the original on May 10, 2007. Retrieved March 3, 2007.
  63. ^ "Students for Sensible Drug Policy - Free Speech 4 Students". Archived from the original on March 29, 2007. Retrieved March 25, 2007.
  64. ^ a b Morrison, Eric (November 6, 2008). "School Board, Frederick reach settlement in 'Bong Hits' case'". Juneau Empire. Archived from the original on November 8, 2008. Retrieved November 6, 2008.
  65. ^ Henig, Samantha (November 21, 2008). "Closure: 'Bong Hits 4 Jesus' Guy, Joseph Frederick". Newsweek. Retrieved February 8, 2023.
  66. ^ Collins, Ronald (November 30, 2010). "Bong Hits 4 Jesus – the full & final story". First Amendment News. First Amendment Center. Archived from the original on September 19, 2015. Retrieved October 17, 2015.

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