'Bong hits' case may reverberate online

Free-speech issues in U.S. court case and more

Press attention on the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court last week focused almost exclusively on free-speech issues for high school students while they're in school or involved in school activities.

And, while the justices may well issue a narrow ruling one way or the other, the possibility exists that their decision will reverberate into the online world; in particular, it may help establish guidelines for school officials who have or have been tempted to clamp down on what their students say and post on social-networking sites, such as MySpace.

Those who have presumed this case a trifling matter because of the juvenile nature of the banner that sparked it should know that "Bong Hits" is considered by legal experts a critically important test of student First Amendment rights.

The specifics in a nutshell: Joseph Frederick, 18, of Juneau, Alaska, was a senior in high school in 2002 when the Winter Olympics torch was to pass in front of his school. Standing on a public street, Frederick and several others displayed a 14-foot banner that read "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" ... while nearby TV cameras rolled. School Principal Deborah Morse grabbed the banner and sent Frederick to her office. He was suspended for 10 days, after which he took the matter to court, where first he was rebuffed but then won on appeal. School officials appealed to the Supreme Court.

A critical aspect of this case, it seems to me, is whether or not the school's authority -- whatever its breadth -- extends to a public place? Yes, the students were on a field trip, but Frederick and his banner mates were in a public street during a very public event when they did the deed. That type of venue should afford even a teenager significantly more leeway in terms of expression than would, say, the school gym.

Now extend that reasoning to the online world, say MySpace. If the court sides with the young man in Alaska, I'm thinking schools are going to have one very difficult time regulating anything that students do online. (As for the business about the banner "condoning drug use" if school officials hadn't acted? A canard. Nonsense. Pure folderol ... Which isn't the same thing as saying our conservative Supreme Court won't buy it.)

What frosts me most about the principal's actions -- more than even the unnecessary banishing of the banner and its carrier -- is that Morse doubled Frederick's suspension from five days to 10 after he brought up Thomas Jefferson and the First Amendment in his defence. That outrageous abuse of power -- a veritable spitting on the Constitution -- will stay with those Alaskan students long after they've forgotten the words that got their classmate in trouble.

Incidentally, some of the online media coverage of this story was hilarious, whether intentionally or not. If I worked at staid, old CBS News instead of ultrahip Network World, for example, I might worry about writing a wiseacre headline such as this: "High Court Hears 'Bong Hits' Case." Although I suppose at staid, old CBS it's possible the headline writer didn't even realize what he or she wrote.

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A blogger's ill-fated reliance on a single "reliable" source was compounded last week by countless news outlets that ran with the erroneous contention that John Edwards would be suspending his presidential campaign in the light of his wife's new battle with cancer. All everyone had to do was wait another half-hour to hear the truth. . . . Lesson learned? Don't bet on it.

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I do not usually recommend many video clips, but this one is particularly amusing. If you find it funny at all, I urge you to watch until the end, because the kicker is pure comedic genius.

Good thing no one can send me to the principal's office at this point in my life.

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