Under the Sun
‘Bong hits’ sign ruling chimes a silly tone
ABOUT the only thing amusing in the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" case is imagining that the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court may have had to utter the phrase repeatedly before issuing the 5-4 ruling that squeezed off another breath of free speech.
Oh, to be a fly on the wall as Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito rolled up their sleeves to bat around the definition of "bong" first as a noun, then as a modifier of "hits" and conclude that their attachment to "4" and "Jesus" constituted an undermining of school officials' efforts to educate students about illegal drugs.
It's hard to believe that not one of the justices chuckled, or at least snickered. So silly an expression must have tickled even the taciturn Clarence Thomas -- or maybe not. Maybe when you get to the sit on the highest bench, you forget there's such a thing as simple youthful mischief.
Evidently, the court's majority has. Otherwise, it would have chucked the case.
But no. A gang of five, including Chief Justice John Roberts, felt the case worthy of attention, using it to chip off a piece of precedence and cheapen a 1969 ruling that said children do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."
The case began when an Alaska high school principal, peeved that a student hoisted a banner with the phrase along a public sidewalk when the Olympic torch was carried past the school, suspended him. She said he was advocating drug use when all the teenager was doing was trying to get on television. It was a lame attempt to claim his 15 minutes of fame.
He sued, saying his free speech rights were violated and an appeals court agreed that he had cause. The principal and her school board argued they acted correctly because watching the torch relay was school sanctioned and the message on the banner was promoting illegal drug use.
That's as nonsensical as the phrase is vague. Roberts admitted the phrase was "cryptic" but said it wasn't unreasonable for the principal to interpret it as pushing drugs.
He applied a different standard in justifying another of the court's free speech rulings that loosened the chain on political campaign ads paid for by special interest groups.
"Where the first amendment is implicated, the tie goes to the speaker," Roberts said, referring to the groups, and "not the censor," meaning campaign-spending laws.
However, in the "bong hits" case, the tie goes to the censor; the speaker is muzzled.
School officials have the heavy responsibility of maintaining a safe, comfortable campus environment. To do so, they've adopted myriad rules about behavior. They've made long lists of things that aren't acceptable to bring to school and crafted "values" lessons about harassment, hazing and cyberbullying.
Hawaii's Board of Education has been wrestling with conduct codes, tiptoeing through a potential minefield of constitutional issues in proposing to allow school officials to search students' lockers without cause and to expand a drug-detection program.
Some believe limits on students' rights do no harm. After all, they're only kids, which is what the court's majority seems to have overlooked.
"Bong Hits 4 Jesus" does incorporate druggie jargon, but followed by the tech-text substitute for "for" and reference to a deity would hardly induce anyone to start puffing pot, as the court and Alaska school officials argue. Maybe it wasn't just the "bong hits" part that disturbed them.
has been on the staff of the Star-Bulletin since 1976. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org