Perhaps I can summon the ghost of Earl Warren or William O. Douglas–or, at the very least, Johnny Cochran– to explain why the Supreme Court ruled against the disruptive student in the “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” case but found in favor of the disruptive student in the “Bush Drug Shirt” case.
In the Bong case, five justices believed that the Bongee/plaintiff was advocating drug use (for Jesus?). They held that schools have a legitimate role in prohibiting illegal drug use; therefore, Bong Boy was out of bounds.
In Bush Shirt, however, the High Court (no pun) refused to overturn a lower court decision in favor of another schoolboy who wore an anti-Bush shirt labeling W a “Chicken Hawk-in-Chief.” The shirt also displayed drug and alcohol imagery. (Photo here.)
Common sense might tell us that in this divided Blue/Red nation, the Bush Shirt could be far more disruptive than the almost-nonsensical Bong Hits banner. The key distinction, apparently, is that along with its imagery ridiculing Bush as a former druggie/boozer–which would, by itself, not have any constitutional protection, I assume–the shirt also included the “Chicken Hawk” and “World Domination” lines, which put it safely over into the realm of protected political speech.
Students don’t park all their rights at the schoolhouse door, but everyone knows, and other court decisions have made clear, that pupils don’t enjoy the full range of rights granted to adults (starting with the fact that kids must attend school up to a certain age; adults, by contrast, can’t be forced to work or go to school).
Schools below the college level still have some of the old in loco parentis functions, and if administrators and teachers didn’t have the power to limit student freedoms in numerous ways (locker searches, for instance), schools in many cities would be even more unmanageable than they are today, if that can be imagined.
This is an iffy case, but our system usually tilts in favor of maximum liberty for the individual. As discussed here before, every system of government is based on faith in something, and, in the eternal struggle between the rights of the group and the rights of the individual, we’ve put most of our chips on the individual. We’ve made our gamble and most of the time, it’s worked out fine–at least, much better than it has in countries that have staked their hopes on the state.
With that in mind, I lean toward okaying the Drug Shirt, given its political themes. But it’s easy to build a hypothetical in which the court’s current reasoning could lead to chaos in schools.
Imagine, for instance, that a number of kids in one school wear “Ban Homo Teachers” shirts, while another group dons “Gay Marriage 4 Ever” shirts. Other students take sides, and shouting matches break out in the halls and locker rooms.
If the school banned all the shirts in an effort to keep order, how would the High Court rule? Both shirts express political messages that have figured in legitimate public debate. Do students have a right to express these ideas, and dozens of equally disruptive themes we could imagine?
It’s a messy conundrum. For more (print and radio) on the subject of the group vs. the individual, have a look here.