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This Critical Debate is part of a Debate Comparison:

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Duration
30-60 minutes
Topic(s)
  • Constitution
  • Protests
  • Supreme Court
Grade(s)
  • 7-12
  • College/University

THE CASE

You are the principal of a high school in Juneau, Alaska. The Winter Olympics will begin soon, and runners are carrying the Olympic torch through your city en route to the Games in Utah. You’ve decided to allow students to leave class to go outside and watch the torch as it passes in front of your school. This is a school-authorized, school-supervised event.

Some students have chosen to watch the relay from the sidewalk across the street from the school. As the torch is approaching, a student who was absent from the day’s earlier classes shows up across the street. He gets his friends to help unfurl a homemade banner with the inscription “Bong Hits 4 Jesus.” (A bong is a device to smoke marijuana.) The sign is big enough to be read from across the street, and TV camera crews covering the relay can easily see it, as well.

Students are laughing and pointing at it. You approach the student and demand that he take the banner down. He refuses, claiming he has a First Amendment right to free speech and pointing out that he isn’t on school property. You confiscate the banner.

Do you punish the student further for displaying his attention-grabbing sign?

  1. Principal's Lawyer Addresses News Media, 2007 teaser
    ?

    Kenneth Starr represented principal Deborah Morse before the Supreme Court. He argued schools must be allowed to limit student speech relating to drug use.

    Molly Riley/Reuters

    Yes. Suspend the student for promoting drug use.

    The banner has made the school look bad and seems to violate the district’s strict anti-drug policy. This was not the appropriate time or place for this student to exercise his free speech.

  2. Joseph Frederick, School Photo teaser
    ?

    Joseph Frederick claimed he created the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" banner "to be meaningless and funny, in order to get on television" and that his actions were protected by freedom of speech.

    Courtesy Joseph Frederick

    No. Let the student go with a warning to choose better options for exercising his free speech.

    The student knew he’d draw your attention. His message may have been inappropriate but it was not directly advocating drug use and should be dismissed as a weak prank.

  • Does the student have a viable argument? What rationale could the student have for claiming he has a First Amendment right to hold up the banner?
  • What do you think the message on the banner means, and how might that influence your decision?
  • If you think the banner endorses drug use, how might the school’s policies on drugs come into play?
  • Should the student’s prior discipline issues be considered in deciding what to do?
  • What’s your role as principal at a school-sanctioned, school-supervised event? Does it matter whether that event is on or off school grounds?

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