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Last Updated: Monday, 19 March 2007, 20:55 GMT
US high court mulls free speech
US Supreme Court - file photo
It is the first major test of student free speech rights in two decades
The US Supreme Court is considering its first major test of students' free speech rights in two decades.

At issue is whether a school principal violated a student's right to free speech by suspending him for displaying a banner reading "Bong Hits 4 Jesus".

High school student Joseph Frederick unfurled the banner during a school trip to watch the Olympic flame pass through Juneau, Alaska, in 2002.

Former special prosecutor Kenneth Starr is representing the head teacher.

Mr Starr investigated former US President Bill Clinton over the Whitewater land deal and the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal.

He said the head teacher, Deborah Morse, acted reasonably and in accord with the school's anti-drug stance.

Mr Frederick said the words on his 14ft (4.26m) banner did not relate to drug use and were meant to be funny in an attempt to get on television.

Ms Morse destroyed his banner shortly after he unfurled it and suspended Mr Frederick, 18 at the time, because she said the banner promoted drug use.

A bong is a type of water pipe that can be used to smoke marijuana.

"This is a case about free speech," said Mr Frederick's lawyer Douglas Mertz. "It is not a case about drugs."

'Political speech'

The case could decide to what extent public schools can bar students at school events from displaying messages deemed inappropriate.

Ms Morse and the Juneau school board are supported by the Bush administration which wants a broad rule that public schools do not have to tolerate speech that disrupts their basic educational mission.

But several of the justices seem reluctant to give schools too much authority at the expense of students' free speech rights.

"It's a political speech, it seems to me," said Justice David Souter. "I don't see what it disrupts."

At the height of the Vietnam War, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of students who wanted to wear black armbands in class to protest against the war.

But the court ruled in the late 1980s that a student did not have the right to give a sexually-suggestive speech at a school assembly and that school newspapers can be censored.


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