The Independent Student Newspaper of St. John's University

The Torch

The Independent Student Newspaper of St. John's University

The Torch

The Independent Student Newspaper of St. John's University

The Torch

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Freedom of speech, not freedom for stupidity

There were many controversial issues that came before the Supreme Court in its past few terms that revolve around abortion, murder and freedom of speech. Last week, the nine justices heard a case that could have a profound impact on the First Amendment rights of students.

Joseph Frederick, now 24 years old, is a former high school student from Juneau, Alaska who held up a 14 foot banner proclaiming “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” across the street from the school to coincide with the Winter Olympic torch relay in 2002. In response, the high school principal suspended him for 10 days. Now the case is before the Supreme Court, which will not decide whether his punishment was too severe, but rather if the school had the right to punish him at all.

While the banner was unfurled on a public street (not on school property), the current tenor of the court has led to much speculation among legal analysts – not to mention the media.
Whatever the court decides, the implications are not pretty. If the court rules in the school’s favor, it would essentially be reinventing “freedom of speech” into “freedom of speech – as long as it’s not offensive.” And if the Court decides in the student’s favor, it sends a message that no one can be held accountable for what they say.

The decision in this case will have an effect on many levels – from freedom of speech, to censorship, to even the separation of church and state. It’s unclear what bothered the school administrator most – the drug reference or the fact that Jesus’ name was invoked. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. This appears to be an overblown case of a teenager writing a stupid phrase on a banner either to shock his audience or make them laugh. But he does not appear to have considered the consequence of his action. And now in the wake of trouble, he turns to the Constitution to bail him out.

Freedom of speech was not created for teenagers trying to get a rise out of their high school administration but for those who wanted to speak out against an unjust government. And with that in mind, the Supreme Court will have to make their decision.

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