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Free speech abridged Alaska high school drug sign case not a banner day for Supreme Court

If you were the principal of a public high school anywhere in the United States, would you go all the way to the Supreme Court to establish the fact that your students are dunderheads?

That is just what the principal of Juneau-Douglas High School did, and last week a fragile majority of the court agreed that what is in operation in Alaska's capital is less an institution of learning than a day-care center for teenagers who cannot handle any thought that has not been predigested by their elders.

We can only hope that other school administrators will not take the court's disagreeable ruling as permission to also dismiss their own student bodies as being unable to absorb and evaluate a robust discussion of absolutely anything.

In January 2002, as the Olympic torch was being run by the school on its circuitous route to Salt Lake City, students and teachers at Juneau-Douglas turned out for a rally and celebration. One particularly obnoxious teen took advantage of the occasion to unfurl a banner that said "BONG HITS 4 JESUS." Said banner was quickly confiscated by the principal, and the instigator suspended from school.

The court's approval of this administrative overreaction, and the ability of Chief Justice John Roberts to cobble together a bare majority for his opinion, was grounded in the idea that speech that can even be interpreted as advocating the use of illegal drugs removes it from the protection of the First Amendment and places it, though the court did not use the expression, in the "clear and present danger" category.

The court's ruling is a threat to the very core of free speech rights. It carves an exception into the First Amendment for those who speak something that their elders find discomforting. Which makes the amendment meaningless.

If the goofy banner displayed across the street from the high school is a true threat to the school's ability to discourage illegal drug use among its charges, then the school's mission to produce educated citizens with the necessary ability to scan, evaluate and make judgments based on all sorts of messages in their environment has not only failed, it has been ignominiously abandoned.

And its failure will be enshrined forever in the annals of the Supreme Court of the United States.

What a victory that was.

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