Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

Posts on Moore v Frederick, a.k.a “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” case

Posted by Dave Bath on 2007-07-12

This post merely pulls together a set of posts analyzing the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" (US Supreme Court Morse v Frederick) case I came across from the must-read Language Log (a gaggle of grammarians) and discussed at Legal Soapbox (now at skepticlawyer) so you can follow more elements of the thread (chronologically) and enjoy a controversy about free-speech, vocabulary, semantics, and a court trying to please administrative agenda.

  1. Snowclones for Jesus by Karl Hagen (2007-03-19) at polysyllabic.
  2. Court Hears Whether a Drug Statement Is Protected Free Speech for Students – New York Times, (2007-03-20)
  3. Pickup by Language Log (2007-03-20)
  4. Can’t we all just get a bong? at Language Log (2007-06-25)
  5. The other meaning of bong at Language Log (2007-06-26)
  6. More on bongs at Language Log (2007-07-06)
  7. The Supreme Court fails semantics at Language Log (2007-07-07)
  8. Carrots that eat milk by LegalEagle at Legal Soapbox (2007-07-08), since moved to
  9. I’d give them a C-, Karl Hagen (2007-07-08) on polysyllabic.
  10. Starr on Morse v. Frederick (Bong Hits 4 Jesus) (Legal Theory Blog 2009-04-22) : Kenneth W. Starr (Pepperdine University – School of Law) has posted Our Libertarian Court: Bong Hits and the Enduring Hamiltonian-Jeffersonian Colloquy (Lewis & Clark Law Review, Vol. 12, No. 1, 2008) on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

    The Supreme Court’s decision in Morse v. Frederick, otherwise known as the Bong Hits 4 Jesus case, highlights the non-realization of Chief Justice Roberts’s goal of greater cohesion and unanimity among the nine Justices. Bong Hits is an example of the Chief Justice appearing increasingly among the majority, Justice Stevens speaking vigorously for the minority, and Justice Thomas’s iconoclastic approach to constitutional issues. Importantly, the case also reveals a trend of alliance between Justices Kennedy and Alito and their shared Hamiltonian skepticism of local power, as well as Chief Justice Roberts’ unsuccessful attempts to limit constitutional questions to narrow grounds of decision. This Essay explores the divided factions of the Court through the lens of Bong Hits and offers further insight into the Justices’ constitutional jurisprudence.

It really seems to me that the majority opinion was more driven by politics than analysis, and LegalEagle’s daughter (see comments in her article) singing "Bing Bong Bah! Bing Bong Bah!" might be advised to stay outside the US! (Perhaps the "Bah!" could be construed as contempt for the Supreme Court decision – you never know.)

Anyway, has anyone got any other plausible interpretations (no prizes available – sorry), and are there any similar "spins" implied by courts in Australia?

Does anyone know of any other good (humorous or insightful) posts on this case?

On a serious note:

Karl Hagen’s latter post takes issue with Language Log’s parsing:

First, it isn’t the case that the Court doesn’t accept that the message may be meaningless. This is what Roberts, for the majority, actually writes (emphasis added):

The message on Frederick’s banner is cryptic. It is no doubt offensive to some, perhaps amusing to others. To still others, it probably means nothing at all…. But Principal Morse thought the banner would be interpreted by those viewing it as promoting illegal drug use, and that interpretation is plainly a reasonable one.

In other words, the Court accepts that the message can be viewed as having no meaning, but that’s not the point. The majority sees the issue as turning around the actions of the principal, and whether or not she was justified in regarding the sign as expressing a particular point of view.
Just because the author of a message intends a particular meaning (or lack of one), it does not follow that the recipients of that message will interpret the message as the author intended. Witness ambiguous headlines like “American ships head to Cuba”. In this case, we don’t say that the amusing reading is invalid because the author didn’t intend it. Similarly, Frederick may well have intended the sign to be nonsense, but that does not bear directly on the question of how others will view it.

That’s a troubling line, as while offensive behaviour that is specifically about or directed at an individual or class (e.g. with vilification laws), there is some justification in taking into account the effect on the listener, but the banner for the unfortunate student wasn’t insulting or vilifying anybody.

I guess that means that a person carrying a banner "Murder!" at an anti-war demonstration can be viewed as encouraging violence, or protesting against it, depending on the whim of the court or DPP.


3 Responses to “Posts on Moore v Frederick, a.k.a “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” case”

  1. That last point is a very interesting one. Further food for thought. You’ve got to be careful in drafting your banners, so it seems.

  2. […] if you are into civil rights, want a good chuckle, or both, it is worth checking out my link farm here (which should probably get an update), especially the analysis by LegalEagle (and subsequent […]

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