The skinny: Students leave school, with permission, to watch Olympic torch come through their town. One student unfurls 14-foot banner proclaiming "Bongs Hits 4 Jesus." Principal tears down sign, suspends student for 10 days. Student sues over loss of free speech.
As always, Linda Greenhouse of The New York Times has the definitive account of the arguments. The attorney for the principal and school board was Ken Starr, and he made it all about drugs:
“Illegal drugs and the glorification of the drug culture are profoundly serious problems for our nation.”
The chief justice, John Roberts, was Starr's deputy in the solicitor general’s office. Roberts was understandably sympathetic to his old boss, but went one step over the line and started making throat-clearing noises about stifling more than just pro-bong speech:
“Why is it that the classroom ought to be a forum for political debate simply because the students want to put that on their agenda?” Chief Justice Roberts asked Mr. Starr.
The question was particularly interesting because Mr. Starr had just sought to reassure the court that his argument was not limitless. The court’s leading precedent on student speech, a 1969 decision called Tinker v. Des Moines School District, “articulates a baseline of political speech” that students have a presumptive right to engage in, Mr. Starr said.
“I find that a very, very disturbing argument, because schools have defined their educational mission so broadly that they can suppress all sorts of political speech and speech expressing fundamental values of the students under the banner of getting rid of speech that’s inconsistent with educational missions.”