Morse v. Frederick
127 S.Ct. 2618 (2007)

  • Fredrick, along with the rest of his class, was allowed to leave class early to watch the Olympic torch run by. Fredrick used this occasion to unfurl a banner that could be interpreted as promoting drug use (it said “Bong Hits 4 Jesus”).
  • The school principal (Morse), seized the banner and suspended Fredrick.
  • Fredrick appealed to the school board, but they upheld the suspension. Fredrick then sued, claiming that his 1st Amendment right to free speech had been violated.
    • Morse claimed that the school had a compelling government interest in fighting drug abuse, and that Fredrick had a lesser degree of 1st Amendment protection while at school.
    • Fredrick claimed that he wasn’t even on school grounds when he unfurled his banner.
  • The Trial Court found for Morse and the school board. Fredrick appealed.
    • The Trial Court found that Morse had reasonably interpreted the banner as contravening the school’s policies on drug abuse prevention.
  • The Appellate Court reversed. The school appealed.
    • The Appellate Court looked to Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (393 U.S. 503 (1969)), and found that the school could not prohibit free speech absent any evidence that the rule was necessary to avoid substantial interference with school discipline or the rights of others.
  • The US Supreme Court reversed and found no violation of Fredrick’s 1st Amendment rights.
    • The US Supreme Court found that the banner was displayed during a school-supervised event, making this a “school speech” case rather than a general case of free speech.
      • Speech in schools, prisons, and the military has consistently held to be less protected than general speech.
    • The Court found that the school had a compelling government interest in prohibiting drug use, and Fredrick’s banner could be considered a form of peer pressure that might increase drug use.
      • The court distinguished this from Tinker by saying this was a case of direct danger to the school, while Tinker’s Vietnam War protest was not a direct danger to the school.
        • Fredrick’s school was directly affected by drugs, while Tinker’s school was not directly affected by the war.
    • The Court applied a balancing test and found that in this case, the school’s compelling government interest was strong enough to override Fredrick’s 1st Amendment rights.