Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Supreme Court Hears Freedom of Speech Case

Another trip on a plane, another opportunity to ramble on about something and post it to my blog. Today’s episode of Incoherent Thoughts from Jeff’s Head is on the topic of free speech, inspired by a case currently being heard by the Supreme Court. I’d give more specifics, but there’s no internet access on the plane, and as ridiculous as that may seem in 2008, it’s still the cold hard truth.

The premise of the case goes like this: Prior to the last Olympics, the Olympic torch runner was scheduled to run through some town in Alaska. In order to give students the opportunity to witness this event first hand, the local high school canceled school for the day so the students, if they wanted to, could partake in watching the parade. This isn’t any different than if school is let out in Indianapolis so people can go to the Colts’ victory parade.

One such student (I’ll call him Jack since I don’t have access to the ‘net right now) was at the parade. As the torchbearer strode past (how’s that for some masterful literary writing), Jack unfurled a large paper sign he had made which read, nice and big for everyone to see: “Bong Hits 4 Jesus”

At this point, a teacher of the school, who happened to be standing right across the street, came across the street, tore the sign in half, and promptly suspended Jack for 5 days.

Shortly after, Jack protested the suspension on the basis of First Amendment rights, and was then suspended for an additional 5 days. For the record, the school claims that the original suspension was for 10 days, although the witnesses seemed to support the 5 day number Jack alleged.

Jack was not at school at the time, he was standing on a public sidewalk holding up a sign, and a government employee, acting on behalf of the government, tore the sign down and enacted punishment. And, not that it really matters but it does help make a point, Jack was 18 at the time.

There are numerous stupidities at work here. First, if you can’t figure out that the phrase “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” is a nonsensical prank staged by the goofball 18-year-old Jack as a joke, then you are an idiot. He was trying to get something offensive and funny on TV, and then joke with his friends about his accolades. Stupid? Yes. And I’m sure it’s not the only stupid thing done by an 18-year-old in Alaska that year.

Second, why the teacher ever thought this was okay is beyond me, but, even after it happened, an evening of sleep and a reflection on the events they should have told the administration that the right thing to do was to revoke the punishment, apologize to Jack, and call it a day. From what I’ve read of the case, I don’t get any impression that Jack was searching for some kind of free-speech lawsuit, and I have to believe that would have satisfied everyone. Instead, the administration allegedly doubled the punishment after Jack protested the suspension.

Third, how is it possible that this case has made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court? Believe it or not, Jack lost the first lawsuit. Then, he won the appeal. So now, it’s all the way to the Supreme Court in what is reported to be the first freedom of speech case heard by the court in 20 years.

Which brings me to the fourth stupidity: how is it that in an era of political correctness and people getting all bent out of shape because they were ‘offended’ by someone’s words, that this is the first freedom of speech case heard in 20 years? You’d think these things would happen all the time… unless, of course, the lower courts were vigorously defending the freedom of speech instead. But, based on this case, it appears that they are not.

I don’t see how the case could be more black and white. If this had happened at school, or even during a school function, there is some legal precedent that limits the free speech of students. You can argue if that precedent is legit or not, but it does exist and would make the case less clear-cut. This was not a school event, school was not in session, and Jack attended the torch running of his own freewill.

If this were a private school, then there would also be no real problem, other than you can’t go around ripping down a sign someone is holding as they stand in the street. But, it would be within the rights of the school to suspend Jack if that's what they wanted to do. If Jack’s parents want to take away his car and ground him for a month, that’s fine too. If his employer wants to fire him, that’s also fine (Jack might win a wrongful termination suit, but they could still fire him, the issue at hand would be very different). If someone wanted to hold up a sign that said “Jack is an a-hole poopy-head” or “I’m with stupid”, that would be within their rights as well.

But, what *IS* plain-as-day, is that no action can be taken by the government to limit the free speech of citizen, unless the government action is undertaken to protect the rights of another citizen. I hope you don’t need me to tell you, but the Constitution does not give you the right not-to-be-offended by someone’s sign, speech, or poor personal hygiene.

Sadly, this brings up the fifth, not yet realized, potential stupidity of the whole thing. The speculation is that Jack will win the case, but that the rationale given by the Supreme Court go something like this: “Bongs can be used for things other than illegal drug use, such as tobacco use. Therefore, the phrase ‘Bong Hits for Jesus’ does not inherently promote or condone the use of illegal drugs, and as such, the speech was not within the jurisdiction of the school.”

Now, I don’t know if that’s how this thing is going to flush out or not, but to me, the ruling should go something like this: “A citizen, functioning in public, has the inalienable right to free speech, and, as Jack’s sign did not infringe upon the rights of any other citizen, the government has no right to take action against Jack regardless of the underlying meaning of the sign.”

If it’s any less direct than that, then I believe the Court will have failed miserably in a case which even the most junior student of the Bill of Rights can figure out in about 3 seconds. The fact that Jack’s speech (if you were to believe that he was somehow actually promoting drug use in the name of Jesus Christ) is offensive to a lot of people and is against the anti-drug policy of the government institution in question, is PRECISELY the reason it is protected under the First Amendment.

The founding fathers did not come up with the Bill of Rights and free speech to protect the future of child pornographers or some other nonsense. Freedom of speech is all about making political statements, moral statements, or other such statements without the risk of the government shackling you up, tossing you on a train, and moving you to a Siberian labor camp. It’s there so your government can’t arrest a professor for posting an anti-government editorial on his blog, as just happened yesterday in China. It’s there so that young master Jack can make a fool of himself on TV, and we can all point and laugh at his foolishness, or maybe get so offended that we organize an anti-bong hits march (complete with awareness ribbon), all the while calling Jack a (pun intended) jackass.

In a similar case that I just read about in a local Silicon Valley paper, a woman is being fined $50 a day by the city government because she has painted a sign on her roof that contains “messages from God”. It sounds like she may well be out of her gourd, but at least she knows what her rights are, and so, while paying the fine, she has filed a federal lawsuit against the city for infringing on her rights.

And she should win, hands down. Neighbors are offended and annoyed, so they complained, and the city now claims that the sign is in violation of the local signing ordinances. However, those ordinances are there to restrict commerce (which, with limits, is within the jurisdiction of government), so that Wal-Mart can’t make a 3000 foot-wide sign and flashes all night and talks to you as you sleep. The ordinances are not there so that the local government can infringe upon your personal rights as they are trying to do in this case.

There was a similar case in my hometown of Griffith a number of years back, when a guy painted “If you want to get rich, then be a lying, thieving, politician” in huge letters on the side of his garage that faced the main street through town. Griffith played the same violation-of-the-signage-ordinance card on him. As I recall, It went all the way to the Indiana Supreme Court, and the guy won (as you would expect, or maybe not, if you don’t understand how this all is supposed to work). He then added “The town hall clowns lost, I won” to the top of his sign. LOL.

So good for that bitter old man. And, hopefully, good for woman who receives messages from God, and for crazy Jack, the pot-smoking evangelical Christian kid from Alaska.

As it turns out, our friend Jack is now studying in China, where I hope he doesn’t get any hair-brained ideas about freedom of speech, lest he find out that a 5 day suspension isn’t the kind of punishment the Communist regime had in mind. :)

A link to a news article about the case is here.

1 comment:

Jay said...

Wait, you mean the kid was praying (the mention of Jesus) at a school-sponsored event (work with me here...)? Isn't that like a violation of the separation of church and state? Shouldn't someone sue the school for that!?

j.