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Law School Case Brief

Morse v. Frederick - 551 U.S. 393, 127 S. Ct. 2618 (2007)

Rule:

United States Supreme Court school speech cases make clear that students do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate. At the same time, the Supreme Court has held that the constitutional rights of students in public school are not automatically coextensive with the rights of adults in other settings and that the rights of students must be applied in light of the special characteristics of the school environment. Consistent with these principles, the Supreme Court holds that schools may take steps to safeguard those entrusted to their care from speech that can reasonably be regarded as encouraging illegal drug use. 

Facts:

At a school-sanctioned and school-supervised event, petitioner Morse, the high school principal, saw students unfurl a banner stating "BONG HiTS 4 JESUS," which she regarded as promoting illegal drug use. Consistent with established school policy prohibiting such messages at school events, Morse directed the students to take down the banner. When one of the students (Frederick) who had brought the banner to the event refused, Morse confiscated the banner and later suspended him. The school superintendent upheld the suspension, explaining that Frederick was disciplined because his banner appeared to advocate illegal drug use in violation of school policy. Petitioner school board also upheld the suspension. Frederick filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the school board and Morse had violated his First Amendment rights. The District Court granted petitioners summary judgment, ruling that they were entitled to qualified immunity and that they had not infringed Frederick's speech rights. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed. Accepting that Frederick acted during a school-authorized activity and that the banner expressed a positive sentiment about marijuana use, the court nonetheless found a First Amendment violation because the school punished Frederick without demonstrating that his speech threatened substantial disruption. It also concluded that Morse was not entitled to qualified immunity because Frederick's right to display the banner was so clearly established that a reasonable principal in Morse's position would have understood that her actions were unconstitutional.

Issue:

Did the school officials violate student Frederick’s First Amendment rights by confiscating the pro-drug banner, which he had unfurled at a school event, and suspending him?

Answer:

No

Conclusion:

On a writ of certiorari, the Supreme Court of the United States held that the school officials did not violate the First Amendment by confiscating the pro-drug banner and suspending the student. The Court concluded that the "substantial disruption" rule of Tinker was not the only basis for restricting student speech. Considering the special characteristics of the school environment and the governmental interest in stopping student drug abuse, the Court held that schools were entitled to take steps to safeguard those entrusted to their care from speech that could reasonably be regarded as encouraging illegal drug use. Reversing the judgment, the Court concluded that the First Amendment does not require schools to tolerate at school events student expression that contributes to the dangers of drug abuse.

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