Morse v. Frederick Case Brief

Facts of the case

At a school-supervised event, Joseph Frederick held up a banner with the message Bong Hits 4 Jesus,a slang reference to marijuana smoking. Principal Deborah Morse took away the banner and suspended Frederick for ten days. She justified her actions by citing the school’s policy against the display of material that promotes the use of illegal drugs. Frederick sued under 42 U.S.C. 1983, the federal civil rights statute, alleging a violation of his First Amendment right to freedom of speech. The District Court found no constitutional violation and ruled in favor of Morse. The court held that even if there were a violation, the principal had qualified immunity from lawsuit. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed. The Ninth Circuit cited Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District , which extended First Amendment protection to student speech except where the speech would cause a disturbance. Because Frederick was punished for his message rather than for any disturbance, the Circuit Court ruled, the punishment was unconstitutional. Furthermore, the principal had no qualified immunity, because any reasonable principal would have known that Morse’s actions were unlawful.

Why is the case important?

Joseph Frederick (P) , a public school student, was suspended by the principal Deborah Morse (D) for displaying a banner on which was written “Bong Hits 4 Jesus”, bong being slang for marijuana, at a school event which was covered by television. He sued the Principal.


Are public schools permitted under law to prevent students from promoting illegal drug use by the display of messages?


(Roberts, C.J.) Yes. Public schools are allowed under law to prevent the display of messages by students which would promote drug use at events held under school auspices. Students do not enjoy full rights to freedom of speech while at school, as compared to adults, and the standard of student freedom of speech as set forth inTinker need not be taken as normative. The right to free speech while in school does not, for example, cover the right to promote illegal drug use, since this clashes with the school’s duty and responsibility to discourage this habit. Frederick’s message was not absolutely clear but carried a reasonable implication of favoring marijuana use. In this case the question of the Principal’s immunity need not be considered.


The Court reversed the judgment of the Ninth Circuit and it remanded the action for further proceedings. The Court 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 disruptionrule 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.

  • Advocates: Kenneth W. Starr Edwin S. Kneedler Douglas K. Mertz
  • Petitioner: Deborah Morse et al.
  • Respondent: Joseph Frederick
  • DECIDED BY:Roberts Court
  • Location: Juneau-Douglas High School
Citation: 551 US 393 (2007)
Granted: Dec 1, 2006
Argued: Mar 19, 2007
Decided: Jun 25, 2007
Morse v. Frederick Case Brief