Morse v. Frederick

PETITIONER:Deborah Morse et al.
RESPONDENT:Joseph Frederick
LOCATION:Juneau-Douglas High School

DOCKET NO.: 06-278
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 551 US 393 (2007)
GRANTED: Dec 01, 2006
ARGUED: Mar 19, 2007
DECIDED: Jun 25, 2007

Douglas K. Mertz
Edwin S. Kneedler –
Kenneth W. Starr –

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.


1) Does the First Amendment allow public schools to prohibit students from displaying messages promoting the use of illegal drugs at school-supervised events?

2) Does a school official have qualified immunity from a damages lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. 1983 when, in accordance with school policy, she disciplines a student for displaying a banner with a drug reference at a school-supervised event?

Media for Morse v. Frederick

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – March 19, 2007 in Morse v. Frederick

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 25, 2007 in Morse v. Frederick

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

I have the opinion of the court in case 06-278, Morse versus Fredrick.

On January 24, 2002 the Olympic Torch Relay was scheduled pass through Juneau, Alaska.

The torchbearers were to proceed along the street in front of Juneau Douglas High School while school was in session.

The principle decided to allow students to leave class to observe the relay as an official school event.

Teachers and school administrators were on hand monitor the event.

Respondent Joseph Fredrick the senior was late to school that day when he arrived he joined his friends across the street from the school to watch the event.

As the torchbearers and camera crews passed by Fredrick and his friends unfurl a 14 foot banner bearing the phrase “Bong Hits 4 Jesus.”

Their goal, they later said, was to get on television.

The large banner was easily readable by the students on the other side of the street.

Deborah Morse the high school principal saw the sign and immediately crossed the street and demanded that it be taken down.

Everyone but Fredrick complied, Morse confiscated the banner and told Fredrick to report to her office where she suspended him for 10 days.

Fredrick sued the principal and the school board claiming a violation of his First Amendment rights.

The District Court found no First Amendment violation but the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed.

It held that the principal’s actions violated the First Amendment and that Fredrick could sue the principal for damages and injunctive relief.

We granted certiorari to review that decision.

We began with two preliminary matters.

First, we conclude that the viewing of the relay by the students was a school event and that our school-speech precedents therefore applied.

The relay occurred during normal school hours, it was sanctioned by Morse as an approved event and the district’s student conduct rules expressly applied.

Teachers and administrators were among the students and were charged with supervising them.

Under these circumstances Fredrick cannot claim that he was not at school.

Second, we agree with Morse that those who view the banner would understand it to be advocating and promoting illegal drug use.

The words on the banner could be taken as an invitation to smoke marijuana or as a celebration of drug use.

The words bear no political or religious meaning and Fredrick does not claim that they do.

But to some of the words might mean nothing at all, Principal Morse was not required to ignore the banners undeniable reference to illegal drugs.

The question before us then is whether a principal can restrict student’s speech at a school event when that speech is reasonably viewed as promoting illegal drug use.

We hold that she may.

Over the past four decades we have decided three leading student-speech cases.

In the first, the Tinker case we held that the students had the right to wear black arm bans to school in non-disruptive protest of the Vietnam War.

In the other two cases Fraser and Kuhlmeier, we ruled against the students.

But each of these cases recognized two things.

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

First, students do not shed their First Amendments rights at the school-house gate.

Second, the nature of those rights has to be accessed in light of the special characteristics of the school environment.

The rights of students at school are not the same as the rights of adults in the community at large.

In another line of cases we have repeatedly held that deterring drug use by school children is an extremely important interest one recognize by all branches of government not to mention thousands of school boards across the country.

In this case the Juneau School District had an express policy prohibiting expression advocating the use of substances illegal for minors.

Based on the special characteristics of the school environment and the government interest in stopping student drug abuse we conclude that schools may restrict student’s expression promoting such abuse.

School principals have a difficult job and a widely important one.

When Fredrick suddenly and unexpectedly unfurled his banner Morse had to decide to act or not act on the spot.

It was reasonable for her to conclude that the banner promoted illegal drug use in violation of the establish school policy and that failing to act would send a powerful message to the students entrusted to her care including Fredrick about how serious the school really was about the dangers of illegal drug use.

The First Amendment does not require schools to tolerate at school events student expression that contributes those dangers.

The judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit is reversed.

Justice Thomas has filed a concurring opinion.

Justice Alito has filed a concurring opinion in which Justice Kennedy has joined.

Justice Breyer has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part.

Justice Stevens has filed a dissenting opinion joined by justices Souter and Ginsburg.