Joseph Frederick claimed his First Amendment rights were violated when the school principal confiscated his “Bong hits for Jesus” sign at a broadcasting event. The case reached the Supreme Court and in Morse v. Frederick, the Court agreed with Principal Morse’s act of censorship. While school officials may have the right to censor the promotion of illegal drug use, vulgar speech, or disruptive conduct, they do not have the right to censor students’ religious expression. Learn more: FirstLiberty.org/Briefing
All the justices agreed about one thing: Joseph Frederick was just looking for attention.
In 2002, Frederick and his Juneau, Alaska classmates took a field trip as the Olympic Torch Relay passed through the town. Frederick had a prime spot directly across from the cameras broadcasting the event across the nation. He wanted to get on TV, so he painted a banner.
But, just as he unfurled the banner, school principal Deborah Morse caught the message that would eventually get the Supreme Court’s attention. “Bong hits for Jesus,” it read. Morse confiscated the banner and later suspended Frederick for the stunt, asserting it encouraged illegal drug use, against school policy. Frederick claimed she violated his First Amendment rights.
Ultimately, in Morse v. Frederick, the Supreme Court agreed with Principal Morse and upheld the crackdown on Frederick’s banner. Morse, acting on behalf of the state, may have censored him, but, according to the court, students cannot hide behind the First Amendment to promote illegal drug use at school.
Yet, sometimes school officials also claim the right to censor student religious expression. We remind them that while they might be able to censor on-campus expressions promoting illegal drug use, vulgar speech, or even conduct that causes a material disruption to their educational mission, school officials cannot suppress the student’s speech just because it is religious in nature.
To learn how First Liberty is protecting religious liberty for all Americans, visit FirstLiberty.org.