Thursday, March 22, 2007

"Bong Hits 4 Jesus" is One Bloke Over the Line

Back when I was in high school (pun intended!) this is the kind of stunt you laughed like crazy about, but after you got caught, you apologized, accepted your punishment, and that was the end of it. But nowadays, when a student's juvenile exuberance leads him to display a banner that cracks up his cohorts but humiliates the high school administrators, he instead sues all the way to the Supreme Court over his suspension.

The time was January 2002, and the occasion was the passing of the Olympic Torch through that snowy Alaskan town of Juneau. Of course, Joseph Frederick, the defendant in this case, was warned that any inappropriate behavior when the torch passed by (and the National media showed their town's high school to the world) would not be tolerated, but apparently the opportunity was too good for jokester Joe to pass up. For as the cameras whirled and the torch paraded past the high school (with all the dutiful students standing outside), Frederick and the dudes unfurled a fourteen-foot banner on national television which read "Bong Hits 4 Jesus." Juneau High School Principal Deborah Morse angrily confiscated the sign and suspended Frederick for ten days for "advocating illegal drug use," if not downright idiocracy. But the kicker came when Frederick (who claimed he was just having fun) brought the case to court on the guise Juneau High violated his right to freedom of speech.

Well boys and girls, five years have passed, which must mean the Supreme Court is now about to hear this case of high school hi-jinx; Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg surely shows her age when she says "... it isn't clear that this [means] 'smoke pot.'" Justice Stephen Breyer is certainly closer to the center with his comment, "If kids go around having banners making a joke out of drug use, that really makes it tougher for me to convince students ... not to use drugs," but I believe it is Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. who truly hits the nail on the head, or the pot in the pipe as the case may be. "There's a broader issue," says Roberts, "of whether principals or teachers ... have to fear that they're going to pay out of their personal pockets whenever they take actions pursuant to established policies."

It just so happens that (sadly) I am now a bit of an expert on both sides of the issue. In high school, I not only smoked marijuana, but my poem "Stoned" was every bit the anthem in my Midwestern 70s town that Dylan's ballad "Everybody Must Get Stoned" was in its 60s heyday. But I haven't partaken in pot in a quarter of a century and, as for Jesus, "the medicine of immortality"—the daily Eucharist—has replaced cannabis as my drug of choice. I still laugh sometimes at Cheech & Chong movies and sometimes still even read "Stoned" (which still gets the most laughs of anything I've written before or since) but ONLY in connection with my later poems such as "The Convert" or "The Endless River and the Timeless Tree" to show that my life, like that of the other Augustine's, has changed from wayward youth to pursuit of Truth.

The really funny (this time, "funny" as in "ironic") thing about this case is that, in the ensuing five years since the case began, Joseph Frederick has become a teacher (in China, no less!) himself. Of course, Joe hasn't, like myself, had the double lesson/blessing of being a teacher AND father, nor has he had as many years of experience. But, given all that (and allowing for the fact the Chinese children might be a tad more respectful of authority), I'm still surprised ol' "Bong Hit" Joe hasn't yet realized the need for student restraint. Hopefully the Supreme Court will get this one right, but if they don't, this former stoner may personally take a slow boat (loaded with plenty of silly-druggie banners) to China, seek out Mr. Frederick's classroom, and attempt to convince him myself.

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