Wednesday, March 21, 2007


Bong Hits 4 Jesus

Red State Rabble is deeply embarrassed to admit we have no idea at all what "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" means. We once considered ourselves experts on the counterculture. Hell, we were card-carrying members of the counterculture when it was first invented back in the 60s.

But all that was long ago, before our perpetually open, sunny expression came to be universally interpreted by young people as a stern look of disapproval.

We know, of course that "bong hits" is a drug reference. Having children who spend all their time texting, IMing, and facebooking, we even know that "4" is a youthful shorthand for "for."

But, "Bong Hits 4 Jesus?" We haven't a clue.

That's why it came as a relief to us to learn that Joseph Frederick, the Alaska high school student who unfurled a banner bearing that legend has no idea what it means either.

Apparently, he saw it stenciled on a snowboard and thought it both meaningless and funny.

His principal, Deborah Morse, didn't quite see it that way. Sensing, perhaps correctly, a diabolical plot against order in her school, she tore up his banner and suspended him for 10 days.

Of course, the controversy found it's way not only into court, but all the way to the Supreme Court.

The legal question "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" centers around is how far schools can go in censoring the speech of students and teachers.

Back in the day, students protesting the Vietnam War won the right to wear black armbands in school. In a 1969 case, Tinker v. Des Moines, the court ruled "It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech... at the schoolhouse gates."

However, in 1986 and 1988 the court muddied the water by ruling that sexually suggestive speech -- that old bugaboo -- and school newspapers can be censored by school officials.

This latest case has, surprisingly, united both civil libertarians and the religious right in support of young Frederick's right to raise high the banner of the meaningless and funny.

And, as always seems the case nowadays, it places RSR, once an black armband wearing rebel against war, and authority in all it's stiff-necked disapproving forms, in an uncomfortable position.

As strong civil libertarians, we support the right of free speech. We are amused when impudent young people tweak the upraised noses of those in authority. But how, as a blogger whose raison d’être is to prevent creationists from turning biology classrooms into pulpits, do we reconcile that freedom with the responsibility to teach objectively?

The answer is neither easy nor obvious.

To get an idea of just how difficult it is to separate rights and obligations that exist in tension with each other -- like the oppositely charged poles of a magnet -- readers may also want to read "Religion Clause Divided Against Itself," a Think Again post by New York Times blogger Stanley Fish.

In his piece, Fish examines the opposition of principle and history in establishment clause jurisprudence, which he describes as "so fissured that one might even call it schizophrenic."

Fish cautions against "blaming either evangelical ideologues or the [Bush] administration" for any deterioration in the wall of separation between church and state.

"The fault," he concludes "lies not in the players – on or off the Court – but in the enterprise, an enterprise so fundamentally divided against itself, that it will continually reproduce its built-in ambiguities and contradictions... "

The same is true in freedom of speech cases such as the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" contretemps currently before the court.

What this legal history tells us is that no court ruling will ever settle these sorts of issues for good and all. The pendulum will always be pushed in one direction or another. Circumstances will change, but those of us who believe in an open society, in tolerance, in reason will have to be ready in every generation to defend our views.

We will always be searching for the golden mean.


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