Thursday, June 28, 2007

BONG HiTS 4 JESUS and coercion in public education

If education in America was private and un-coerced (as it should be), the ongoing controversy over the free speech rights of students in the public schools would be moot. Needless to say, we are not so fortunate as to have our rights respected in education; the state chooses its curriculum by majority whim, mandates that the taxpayer pay for it, and requires that our children dutifully attend public classes (or take private instruction elsewhere, mandating that these parents double-pay for their children's education.)

It is not surprising then that an institution built upon coercion often has a hard time dealing with freedom. Consider the US Supreme Court's decision this week in Morse v. Frederick. In its decision, the Court ruled that Juneau-Douglas High School principal Deborah Morse acted lawfully when she ordered 18 year-old student Joseph Frederick to take town a poster saying "BONG HiTS 4 JESUS" during the 2002 Olympic torch relay that passed in front of the high school and suspended Frederick when he refused to comply with her instructions. Morse initially suspended Frederick for five days for violating the school district's anti-drug policy, but increased the suspension to ten days after he refused to give the names of his fellow participants and quoted Thomas Jefferson on free speech.

The phrase "BONG HiTS 4 JESUS" is inane regardless of whether it was disruptive or not, and had Frederick been a student at a private school, I would have supported suspending him simply on the grounds that his poster was an insult to the educational mission of his school. Yet Frederick was a public school student, and the public schools have the mission of "socializing" students, which includes engendering their support for the illicit drug laws. The Court ruled that the public schools' anti-drug mission and their responsibility as in loco parentis authorizes them to prohibit speech such as Frederick's.

What I found striking about the Court's decision was the view of Justice Thomas, who argued that public school students have no free speech rights at all. For example, in his concurring opinion, he positively referenced a 1915 California Court of Appeals decision that upheld the suspension of a public school student who gave a speech before the student body that criticized the administration for having an unsafe building “because of the possibility of fire.” Wooster v. Sunderland, 27 Cal. App. 51, 52, 148 P. 959, (1915). In Justice Thomas' eyes, even a student's arguing against a materially unsafe condition at his government-run school is uttering unprotected speech.

But why? According to Justice Thomas,

Parents decide whether to send their children to public schools. . . [I]f parents do not like the rules imposed by those schools, they can seek redress in school boards or legislatures; they can send their children to private schools or home school them; or they can simply move. Whatever rules apply to student speech in public schools, those rules can be challenged by parents in the political process.
Justice Thomas' reasoning fails to appreciate the coercive nature of the public schools. If a parent enrolls their child in a private school, they tacitly accept the school's policies. If a parent comes to reject these policies, they may dis-enroll their child accordingly. Yet there is nowhere in America where one can live and not have their income and propriety taxed in support of the public schools. If a person opposes the public schools, yet cannot afford both the taxes to pay for these schools and the additional cost of a private education for their child, the law grants then no option but to enroll their child in the public schools and submit their child's education to the majority's whim. One way or another, we are simply captive to the public schools, whether we like it or not.

Fortunately, the "BONG HiTS 4 JESUS" ruling is a minor one. If Frederick's poster was his attempt to challenge norms that he disagreed with, his freedom of speech was squelched, but barely, because his speech was so inane that it barely made sense—if at all. Nevertheless, it angers me that some future John Galt could be left unsupported by the courts if while enrolled in the public schools, he dares to criticize these schools and the morality behind them like they deserve to be criticized.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Justice Thomas' support for that prior decision is extremely frightening. It seems that one could easily extend that line of thinking to the idea that elected officials can do anything they want so long as individuals retain the right to petition the government, elect different officials, or move to a different country. Not that we should be surprised any longer, but somehow I still am.