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Chronicle Book Review: BONG HiTS 4 JESUS

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #696)
Politics & Advocacy

BONG HiTS 4 JESUS: A Perfect Constitutional Storm in Alaska's Capital by James Foster (2011, University of Alaska Press, 373 pp., $29.95 PB)

In January 2002, as Olympic torchbearers making their way to the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City jogged through the streets of Juneau, Alaska, past the local high school, a troublemaking prankster of a high school student and some of his friends held up a 14-foot banner reading "BONG HiTS 4 JESUS." The school principal, Deborah Morse, rushed over to the students, tore down the banner, and subsequently suspended the prankster, Joseph Frederick. Little did anyone imagine at the time that the far-off brouhaha would roil the community for years and that the controversy would end up at the US Supreme Court.

Oregon State University professor and student of judicial politics James Foster tells the tale of a case that has helped shape First Amendment jurisprudence in the exceptionally sticky milieu of student free speech rights and schools' rights to accomplish their educational missions. And while there is a plenty of fine-toothed examination of the high court's legal reasoning in Morse v. Frederick, as the case came to be known, as well as related cases, there is a lot more to BONG HiTS 4 JESUS than dry textual analysis.

When, on the first page of the first chapter of the book, the author references Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa's classic 1950 film Rashomon, the reader begins to get an inkling that this is going to be something of a ride. And so it is.

Foster sets up a story of conflicting narratives in a conflicted town in a conflicted time. Juneau, Alaska's capital city, is an isolated town in an isolated state, a liberal island of blue in a sea of red, a small town where the protagonists in local conflicts are likely to run into each other at the grocery store. That social and political context, and the hostilities it engendered, helped turn what began as a local imbroglio into a problem that could only be decided by the Supreme Court.

If Joseph Frederick had been less of an authority-challenged troublemaker, or if Principal Morse had had a better administrative style, the whole affair could have been handled as little more than a tempest in a teapot. Foster excels at explaining why that wasn't to be and how a disciplinary interaction between an educator and a student ends up as constitutional question before the highest court in the land.

Aside from the interpersonal and community context of the conflict and the case, Foster also excels at explaining the legal context, discussing at some length a line of cases about student rights running back to the seminal 1969 case, Tinker v. Des Moines School Board, in which the court famously held, in Justice Abe Fortas' words, that "Students… do not leave their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the school house gate." That case involved students wearing black arm bands to protest the Vietnam War.

But, as Foster makes abundantly clear, Fortas' stirring -- and oft-cited -- proclamation was actually stronger than the court's own ruling in Tinker, where it held that political ("symbolic") speech could not be constrained as long as it did not interfere with the educational mission of the school. And as his examination of the handful of key post-Tinker cases relating to student rights demonstrates, the bright and shining rule of Fortas' formulation has been quickly and relentlessly chipped away at by less friendly Supreme Courts.

Some of those cases were not First Amendment cases, but Fourth Amendment ones. The elements they had in common with Morse were the scope of students' rights and adults' fears about drugs. In those two cases, conservative courts approved the use of warrantless, suspicionless random drug testing, first of athletes and then of any students involved in extracurricular activities. As in other realms of law, the Supreme Court in those cases created a drug war-based exception to the Fourth Amendment when it comes to students, or, as Foster puts it, a "Fourth Amendment-Lite."

Through close examination of oral arguments and the different written opinions in Morse, Foster shows that the same concerns about student drug use weighed heavily on the minds of the justices, so much so that they were moved to decide against Frederick's free speech rights. The Roberts court was more afraid of a nonsense message that could -- with some contortions -- be construed as "pro-drug," than it was of eroding the freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment.

BONG HiTS 4 JESUS is not a book about drug policy, but it is one more demonstration of the way our totalizing, all-encompassing war on drugs has deleterious effects far beyond those of which one commonly thinks. Really? We're going to trash the First Amendment because some kid wrote "bong hits" on a sign? Apparently, we are. We did.

There are some dense thickets of legal exegesis in BONG HiTS 4 JESUS, and the book is likely to be of interest mainly to legal scholars, but Foster brings much more to bear here than mere eye-watering analysis. For those concerned with the way the war on drugs warps our lives and our laws, this book has much to offer.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


Debra Rincon Lopez (not verified)

THIS IS Surely one of stupidest things I have heard in a very longtime, they are just trying to make a point. I guess their little ploy worked. MORE than they ever thought it would, I WOULD SAY? It's sick, dumb & a waste of everyone's time to even take anymore time on this subject. OKAY leave it alone. DON"T promote they're CRAZY ANTIC's they love it.

Thu, 08/11/2011 - 12:04pm Permalink
Brinna (not verified)

"BONG HiTS 4 JESUS is not a book about drug policy, but it is one more demonstration of the way our totalizing, all-encompassing war on drugs has deleterious effects far beyond those of which one commonly thinks."

The SWAT invasion of Rawsome Foods in L.A. by FDA agents, where food, computers, cash were confiscated and the owner thrown in jail for selling raw milk (initially without option for bail) is a DIRECT result of the Prohibition War on Drugs, and the strategies used to implement it. 

Thu, 08/11/2011 - 4:21pm Permalink
Jeff Brown (not verified)

Jesus was a stoner. Google Marijuana and the Bible by Jeff Brown

Marijuana has been used for thousands of years in various religions around the world. It has been used to realize the God or Goddess that lives within. Christ shared marijuana with his disciples. Any law against it is the organized conspiracy of the United Nations and the political governments who assist in maintaining this conspiracy.

sincerely Jeff Brown

Thu, 08/11/2011 - 10:03pm Permalink
Giordano (not verified)

‘Bong Hits 4 Jesus’ was pure genius.  Probably no other set of 4 words could have spiked the minds and rattled the puritanical instincts of so many red-blooded Americans.  We need more stuff like this.  Driving the opponent crazy is considered a legitimate tactic in the art of warfare. 

A picture of a very ripped-looking Jesus smoking a pipe with the caption:  “Who Would Bust Jesus?” would get some attention.  Or maybe a Virgin Maryjuana theme employing a scantily clad young model smoking a blunt.  The possibilities are endless.

Anything juxtaposing idolatry with stigma is going to blow the prohibitionists’ minds— because it will make them think.  And we know how much it pains prohibitionists to think.


Fri, 08/12/2011 - 12:38am Permalink
Colleen McCool (not verified)

Look at the photo or my portrait! Do you believe they did all the work to stage this for a fleeting, brief TV shot at fame? They were promoting moral and fiscal responsibility against policy that is a scandalous waste of our precious lives and resources. Their cause was just, Joe and his Buds will go down in history as true patriots!

Parents do not necessarily hold the same values as the politically and economically powerful who run our government. A separation of school and state might be in our future as one way to insure students of free speech and a propaganda free education.

Effective drug education based on medical science builds student's confidence to make informed responsible choices. Present policy falsehoods and scare tactics undermine our credibility. We want to encourage drug free behavior not awaken their curiosity. Truth, trust and reason encourage open communications between youth, parents and faculties.

This case is also about religious freedom and in that way, "Bong Hits for Jesus," is right on, as well. Holy smokes, cannabis is often used as a sacrament just like wine. Why does that scare people of faith instead of excite them?

Fri, 08/12/2011 - 10:00am Permalink
Colleen McCool (not verified)

Joe Federick and his buds were led down the garden path by their legal counsel and adult mentors. Joe should have been encouraged to go on defending the banner, as he did initially on the grounds of political free speech and religious freedom.

Our corrupt justice system is milked for all its worth by lawyers and many others, who have the power to make it run with the milk of human kindness.

Fri, 08/12/2011 - 10:08am Permalink
Vanguard (not verified)

This is what has always really bothered me about marijuana prohibition. It really isn't that long a road from prohibiting drugs to prohibiting speech. Here is my reasoning.

Prohibition of a physically safe drug like marijuana is basically about prohibiting the mental state induced with its use. Once you have prohibited the mental state, it becomes "commonsense" that you have prohibited the speech that might arise from that state.

I was a child in the sixties and overheard a lot of adult conversations during that era. In my opinion, marijuana did not become a danger to society until hippies started smoking it. Hippies were mad at the system and talked about it. Just as cigarettes became associated with a cowboy on a horse, marijuana's brand became anger at society. And in a society that was brand obsessed and reprogrammed daily, it became possible to sell marijuana smokers as fit only for jail; where their dangerous thoughts could be legally squelched.

Some say that Joseph Frederick created a masterful government tweaking haiku when he wrote BONG HiTS 4 JESUS. But I am afraid I don't see it that way. I have to conclude that the Supreme Court chose the case so that it could finally, once and for all, make clear that marijuana prohibition is about prohibiting dangerous thoughts in American young people. And they (Americans) shouldn't expect to get around it with speech because it is the thought precursing the speech that Congress has banned. The fact that the phrase was nonsensical increases the power of that decision, because there is no bigger category of speech than nonsensical speech. If you can ban that, you can ban any speech, anytime, anywhere.

Fri, 08/12/2011 - 2:34pm Permalink

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