Morse v. Frederick

Following is the case brief for Morse v. Frederick, United States Supreme Court,(2007)

Case summary for Morse v. Frederick:

  • Principal Morse suspended joseph Frederick for holding up a banner at a school event which read “Bong Hits 4 Jesus.” Frederick brought suit against Morse, claiming his First Amendment rights had been violated.
  • The district court held that the speech was not protected by the First Amendment and the court of appeals reversed.
  • After granting a writ of certiorari, the Supreme Court of the United States held that speech at a school function, that can reasonably be read as a cryptic message advocating the use of illegal drugs, is not protected under the First Amendment.

Morse v. Frederick Case Brief

Statement of the facts:

Principal Morse suspended Frederick, a high school senior, for displaying a banner which read “Bong Hits 4 Jesus.” Frederick was suspended for 10 days because Morse believed the sign was promoting the use of illegal drugs, in violation of school policy. In response, Frederick filed a suit in federal district court claiming the suspension was an unconstitutional violation of his First Amendment right.

Procedural History:

After the district court ruled in favor of Morse stating Frederick’s action was not subject to First Amendment protections.  Frederick appealed to the court of appeals who reversed in favor of Frederick. The Supreme Court granted the petition for certiorari.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

School officials are not prevented from prohibiting speech that can reasonably be interpreted as promoting illegal drug use, under the First Amendment.

Issue and Holding:

Does the First Amendment allow school officials to prohibit students from displaying messages which promote the use of illegal drugs at school events? Yes.

Judgment:

The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the lower court.

Reasoning:

The Court referenced their previous decision in Tinker v. Des Moines, 393 U.S. 503 (1969), which outlined that students in the public school setting do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” School officials only have the authority to punish students for expressing personal views of such expression is believed to substantially interfere with school work or impinge on other student’s rights. The First Amendment rights of students in a public school are not as extensive as the rights of adults outside of the school setting.

Here, Morse acted reasonably when she interpreted the message as promoting illegal drug use and under the constitution, Morse has the right to restrict such speech at a school event. In addition, determinations regarding disruptive speech are within the scope of the school board.

In determining school regulation of speech, the two controlling principles are: student in a public school do not have the same First Amendment rights as adults in other settings and not all cases require student expression be suppressed only when officials reasonably conclude it will substantially and materially disrupt the discipline and work of the school.

The compelling interest, in this case, was the prevention of illegal drug use among students. As a result, Frederick’s suspension does not violate the First Amendment.

Concurring or Dissenting opinion:

Concurring (Alito):

Interpretation of the majority’s opinion should be limited to: a public school may restrict speech that a reasonable observer would interpret as advocating illegal drug use; and provide no support for any speech restriction which can be interpreted as commenting on any political issue.

Concurring (Thomas):

Tinker should be overruled because the history of public school education suggests that the First Amendment does not protect speech uttered in public schools. In addition, Tinker undermines the fact that from the beginning teachers were permitted to discipline students for disrespectful or wrong conduct, let alone the principle of teachers teach and students listen.

Concurring and Dissenting in part (Breyer):

The majority decision should have been based on the grounds that Morse was protected under qualified immunity.

Dissenting  (Stevens):

Morse should not be held liable under qualified immunity for taking down Frederick’s sign although he stated its purpose was to gain media attention. Even so, the school’s interest in protecting its student from speech reasonably viewed as promoting the use of illegal drugs cannot justify disciplining Frederick for his attempt to gain media attention because it included a cryptic drug reference.

If the banner was interpreted as actually advocating illegal drug use, the First Amendment protects against such a ban because it was based on content as highly protected political speech. Speech may not be suppressed simply because it is unpopular, even in a public high school setting.

Significance:

Morse v. Frederick helped establish that although students maintain a First Amendment right in public schools, that right can be outweighed by a school’s compelling interest. More specifically, advocating for the use of illegal drug use at a school function, even if cryptic, is not protected under the First Amendment.

Student Resources:

https://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/06-278.ZS.html
http://www.uscourts.gov/educational-resources/educational-activities/facts-and-case-summary-morse-v-frederick

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