Marijuana case with stern face
On January 20, the case of the schoolboy from Alaska was studied carefully at the HSE Faculty of Law students' case club. It seems that Frederick's freedom of speech had been violated. Without that important social topic the case might have been treated as insignificant.
The case club at the HSE Faculty of Law was established in 2008. It was founded by Anton Yeropkin, a HSE Faculty of Law post-graduate student. Over the last year, at four meetings of the club, HSE students have scrutinized the US Supreme court precedents. These cases were interesting for the statement of the problem, the approaches to their solution and the range of judicial theory and constitutional law implemented. The members of the club study the US Supreme Court judgments in English - the same materials their American counterparts study.
On January 20, the case of "Morse et al. v. Frederick" (2007) was studied. At first glance it may seem relatively minor or even a joke. In 2002 during the Olympic Games, pupils from a school in Alaska went into the street to watch the torchlight procession. Several boys, Frederick among them, unfurled a banner with the words "BONG HITS 4 JESUS". This phrase may have different meanings, most of them absolutely innocent. But the word "bong" has a slang meaning - "a device for marijuana smoking". This is the reason the banner was considered to be drug propaganda. Most of the pupils obeyed Ms. Morse, the school director, and withdrew the banner, but Frederick did not. As a result, Ms. Morse took the banner forcefully and dismissed Frederick from the school for one week for violation of the school rules.
The case might have remained unknown if Frederick had not appealed to the court, claiming violation of his freedom of speech. The court decided that Ms. Morse had violated the First Amendment and granted Frederick's request. Ms. Morse in her turn appealed to the US Supreme Court where the discussion on Frederick's actions continued.
The case proved to be difficult. While it was being considered in court, some fundamental problems of the "freedom of speech interpretation" and its interpretation in the case of schoolchildren were revealed. According to the first Amendment, the US citizen has right to "freedom of speech". Drugs are forbidden. But nobody bans you from coming out with your personal opinions on the topic. But is this norm to be extended to schoolchildren? Do children have the same rights as adult Americans? The second problem is the public role of school. Who is responsible for the children's attitude towards harmful things: the school or the family? How should teachers' intervention into schoolchildren's lives be restricted?
During the session participants divided into two groups. One side represented Frederick and the other one supported the school director's position. Students had the opportunity to come out with strong arguments, protect their own position and oppose opponents.
Frederick's advocates claimed that the court had not studied the words depicted on the Fredericks` banner. This was why the judge couldn't decide if it was drugs propaganda.
But the opponents argued, there was no need for it. If any schoolchild adopted the script as drugs advertisement it could be treated as tangible proof.
In their turn, Frederick's advocates objected that the defendant could have meant something other than drug propaganda and he couldn't be held responsible for all possible interpretations. And it is clear enough that Frederick didn't attend school lessons that day and participated in the procession as ordinary visitor, not a school pupil.
The school director's supporters asserted that Frederick took part in the school event held during school lessons. This is why we should consider his activity as under the jurisdiction of the school authorities.
There were many more interesting arguments within the discussion. For example, some students mentioned Fredericks` statement. According to it, he wanted to be featured on the TV cameras that filmed the torchlight procession and didn't mean to encourage his classmates to do anything. The fact that he is treated as directors` "victim" is the drug advertisement. Forbidden fruit is always the sweetest and there are reasons to treat directors` actions as drugs propaganda.
But Ms Morse`s efforts are justified by her duties as school director. School is an institution for bringing up children. So it attempts to protect children from external negative influences. It is the reason all improvements to the Constitution are implemented in a particular way in schools. School takes a part of parents` rights and duties. And as it is commonly recognized, parents, for some reasons, can restrict children's liberties. In this case, drug promotion for children is being considered. And there is no reason to underestimate the potential health damage to children.
Finally, we are going to reveal the outcome of this judicial case regarding violation of speech freedom in Alaska. Despite divided opinion among the lawyers and judges and despite tangible proof for Fredericks` position, the US Supreme Court, by a majority of one, found the director's sanctions lawful. The civil rights of schoolchildren are restricted by this final ruling.
Dmitri Siginevich, the HSE News service.
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