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WASHINGTON -- When Joseph Frederick unveiled a banner in 2002 on a public sidewalk in a Juneau, Alaska, Olympic parade that read "bong hits 4 Jesus," he probably didn't think his self-proclaimed prank would land him in the Supreme Court.
But that's where his case was heard on Monday, in a lively argument over free speech rights.
Frederick has said the banner's language was meant to be meaningless and funny effort to get on television as the Winter Olympic torch relay passed by his high school in January 2002.
His principal, Deborah Morse, believed the banner advocated or promoted illegal drug use in violation of school policy. She grabbed the banner and crumpled it. Then she suspended Frederick for 10 days.
Frederick sued, with the help of lawyer Douglas Mertz, of Juneau, and the American Civil Liberties Union. In subsequent court cases, the school has argued that it has a right to squelch speech that promotes illegal behavior and runs afoul of school policy.
Now, following a line of reasoning familiar to first amendment advocates, lawyers for conservative Christian groups said they found the content of Frederick's speech objectionable, but they want to defend his right to free speech because they want to be sure their own speech is protected.
Frederick's banner was disrespectful to God and disrespectful to believers of Christianity , Kevin Theriot, an attorney for Alliance Defense Fund, told the Web site Beliefnet. Even so, ADF, the American Center for Law and Justice, the Liberty Legal Institute and the Christian Legal Society have all filed briefs defending the student.
The government's position would give schools the authority to regulate all unpopular, controversial speech, according to ACLJ's Jay Sekulow. His organization was founded founded by Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson.
Justice Stephen Breyer, addressing Mertz, said he is struggling with the case because a ruling in Frederick's favor could encourage students to go to absurd lengths to test those limits.
A ruling for Morse, however, "may really limit free speech," Breyer said.
Chief Justice John Roberts suggested that schools should be allowed to teach "character formation and not to use drugs." But Justice David Souter said the banner's message sounded "like just a kid's provocative statement" to him.
The Bush administration has backed the school board. And Kenneth Starr, the former special prosecutor who investigated ex-President Bill Clinton over the Whitewater land deal and the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal, is arguing on behalf of the principal and the school board.
“The Supreme Court famously said that students do not shed their rights at the schoolhouse gate and that is the principle we are still fighting for 40 years later," ACLU National Legal Director Steven R. Shapiro said on Monday.
The most recent and famous court decision in the matter of free speech for students came in 1969, when teenage siblings John and Mary Beth Tinker won the right to protest the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands in school.
Mary Beth Tinker, 54, traveled to Washington to hear the arguments before the Court.
"For decades the law has been that students have the constitutional right to free speech even on school campuses,” Mertz said.