Morse v. Frederick: The Court’s Ruling

2012-10-15 00:00:44 by admin

Morse v. Frederick

Morse v. Frederick: Facts of the Case

On further review, the Supreme Court, in an opinion by Chief Justice Roberts, reversed in favor of the principal and board. Chief Justice Roberts began his analysis by noting that the Court agreed to hear an appeal on “whether [the student] had a First Amendment right to wield his banner and, if so, whether that right was so clearly established that the principal may be liable for damages”. Consequently, he indicated that because the Court rejected the student’s claim that he had such an established right, it was unnecessary to address the second question.

Roberts noted his reliance on the Supreme Court’s precedent in its three other student speech cases, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969), Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser (1986), and Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988). Beginning with Tinker, Roberts conceded that while students have rights in schools that are not equal to those of adults, they must be considered in light of the special circumstances in schools. To this end, he observed that educators may limit student speech that they think encourages illegal drug use.

Chief Justice Roberts next rejected the student’s allegation that the admittedly cryptic banner was not school speech, because the display occurred during the day at a school-approved and supervised event. In finding that the principal had the power to act as she did, Roberts clarified that under Tinker, the free speech rights of students must be examined in light of the special characteristics of schools. Turning to Fraser, Roberts interpreted it as meaning both that student rights are not equal to those of adults and that Tinker was neither absolute nor the only justification on which officials can limit student speech. In differentiating Fraser from Hazelwood, because the banner could not reasonably have been viewed as having the approval of school officials, Roberts rejected the former’s “plainly offensive” standard, because it gave educators too much discretion. Roberts thus concluded that the principal did not violate the student’s right to free speech, because she disciplined him based on her legitimate concern of preventing him from promoting illegal drug use.

In his concurrence, Justice Thomas maintained that because the First Amendment does not confer any defense for the free speech rights of students, Tinker has no basis in the Constitution. Justice Alito, joined by Justice Kennedy, concurred because he agreed with the Court’s wanting to restrict speech advocating illegal drug use, but he would not have expanded the ban to political or social issues. In his partial concurrence and partial dissent, which also joined the judgment of the Court, Justice Breyer would have limited the holding to the extent that the student’s damages claim against the principal was barred by qualified Immunity. Justice Stevens’s dissent argued that the student’s nonsensical banner was protected speech that neither violated a permissible school rule nor advocated conduct that was either illegal or harmful. He also agreed with the Court that the principal should not have been personally liable for destroying the banner.