Morse v. Frederick

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551 U.S. 392

The Court held that school officials did not violate the First Amendment rights of Frederick, a student, by suspending him and confiscating a banner that read “BONG HiTS 4 JESUS” after he displayed the banner at a school-sanctioned and school-supervised event. This holding was based on the right of schools to “take steps to safeguard those entrusted to their care from speech that can reasonably be regarded as encouraging illegal drug use.”

Carryover to Tech-Related Student Speech. As the Court’s analysis is based almost entirely upon the school’s sanctioning of the event and the physical proximity of the speech to the school, this would not seem to have much carryover into tech-related cases of student expression, such as students’ speech in off-campus blogs. The Court recognized that this case involved merely a question of “whether a principal may, consistent with the First Amendment, restrict student speech at a school event, when that speech is reasonably viewed as promoting illegal drug use.”

School speech. The court held that this was a “school speech case” even though it did not take place within a school because the event at issue occurred during school hours, was a school-approved social event that expressly was governed by student-conduct rules, and was supervised by teachers and administrators. In addition, Frederick stood with other students across the street from the school and directed his banner toward the school and other students.

“Substantially Disrupt” Standard. Under Tinker v. Des Moines, 393 U.S. 503, the “black armbands” case, schools may suppress student expression if school officials reasonably conclude that it will “materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school.” The Court found that promotion of illegal drug use met the “substantially disrupt” standard. The Court said that those who viewed Frederick’s banner would interpret it as promoting illegal drug use—particularly considering what the Court felt was a lack of possible alternative meanings—and thus Frederick’s speech was subject to suppression.