Justice Antonin Scalia, ridiculing the notion that schools should have to tolerate speech that seems to support illegal activities, asked about a button that says, "Smoke Pot, It's Fun."If you stand next to a man wearing an "I'm with Stupid," tee-shirt, and the arrow is pointing in your direction, can you sue him for defamation? Is the tee-shirt a positive affirmation that he is, in fact, with stupid? Does the arrow present a concrete indication that the most proximate individual is stupid-designate? Would such defamation be considered libel, because the message is textual and durable, or is it slander, because the act of dressing and the proximity of the bearer of the shirt to the object of the arrow is gestural?
Or, he wondered, should the court conclude that only speech in support of violent crime can be censored. "'Extortion Is Profitable,' that's okay?" Scalia asked.
-"Bong Hits for Jesus," the Times-
The issue before the Supreme Court is whether or not a banner reading "Bong Hits 4 Jesus," displayed during school hours but off school property, can be censored by school officials. Actually, the issue is whether or not display of said banner can be punished by school officials after the fact of its display, but that's probably a distinction without a difference. The question, as always, is whether or not students in public schools are subject to a different standard for free expression, and whether or not those limits extend beyond the boundaries of school property. Can students be punished for parodying or insulting teachers on personal websites? Can students be punished for fighting when not at school? The courts have given plenty of contradictory answers, full of expediencies and caveats, but that's what modern supreme courts seem to prefer--clarity and enunciated principles are not their current preferences.
Maybe that isn't the real issue, though. Maybe the real issue is, as averred by Chief Justice Roberts: "I thought we wanted our schools to teach something, including something besides just basic elements, including the character formation and not to use drugs." Presumably these "basic elements" are things like reading, writing, and 'rithematic. Science and history. Biology, geology, trigonometry. How a 4-year college degree with a couple courses in pedagogy, a state certification, and a union card confer expertise in "character" is perhaps the question. Why our schools, which already labor to teach kids anything at all, and which seem stretched beyond their capacities when it comes to getting an 8th-grader to do long-division and a 10th-grader to read something more complex than a heavily-redacted--strike that, an "abridged" version of some boilerplate classic, Huck Finn without the "niggers" or Anne Frank without the sex, should spend time trying to teach little Suzy and Johnny how to be good little Americans is another relevant line of inquiry. To paraphrase the inimitable Coen Brothers creation, "Who's the fuckin' conservatives here?" There was a time when things like sex and character and moral standing were to be taught "in the home," or "in the church," or in some other permutation of the natural community, the civic space, "communities of faith," and suchlike. The idea that "our schools," by which we mean our public schools, by which, in the conservative imagination, we mean our government more or less directly, are the agents through which "character" and "values" are transmitted was for a long time viewed with suspicion--rightly, in my mind. Certainly school is a place to learn some social discipline and basic skills for functioning in a civic society, but the notion that they are equally a venue for molding the morals of the youth should provoke some sidelong glances, to say the least.
The idea likewise that "don't do drugs" should be a curricular imperative is distinctly odd. It's one thing for schools to prohibit drugs on their campuses, and it's probably harmless--if useless--for, say, health classes to prosyletize the bland advantages of clean living, even if they're preaching these days to rooms full of mood-altered test tubes: "our children, the future." It's quite another to suggest that "just say no" ranks with the transmission of the rudiments of knowledge: literacy, numeracy, some basic history, the elementary principles of physical and biological sciences. It's a pretty staggering claim, from a Chief Justice of the United States.
But it's Scalia's tee-shirt nonsense that jumps out at me the most, because I ask you to imagine that a student walks into a school wearing a shirt bearing the label "Extortion Is Profitable." No sane administrator or teacher would see that as an incitement for students to extort each other; no one would read that as positive advocacy of extortion as a career or lifestyle. No one would suspend that student, and that case would never come to the Supreme Court. No one is hysteical about extortion. There is no "War on Extorition." The Chief Justice does not believe that schools should make it a central concern to teach our children not to extort each other. As for "Smoke Pot, It's Fun," well, it is. Truth, at last, in advertising. Still, because this case has to do with drugs, it will likely spin on some permutation of the unique evil that is addiction, even though the drug in question is not addictive. If the kid had been a little wiser, he would have quoted General Washington:
Make the most of the Indian hemp seed,
and sow it everywhere!