Thursday, June 28, 2007


I was watching Monty Python's Flying Circus on DVD last night, which led me to ponder the preference I and so many of my friends have for British comedy. The shows that get distribution on this side of the pond are clearly better than much of what passes for comedy in the U.S. But why? I was forced to conclude that with the exception of the teams behind The Daily Show and The Simpsons, the best American writers shy away from the comic because they're too daunted by the prospect of trying to compete with American reality. Come up with the best sitcom imaginable: it could not compete with the day-to-day idiocy of this nation. I thought the absurdity of American public discourse had reached its height ten years ago when some of the most prominent legal minds in the republic were struggling with the weighty question, "Is oral sex really sex?"

Clearly, I need to have more faith in our society.

This week the Supreme Court of the United States--with a list of cases pending on the future of integrated public schooling, the antitrust character of the American business climate, and a human being's life--took time to deliberate whether a banner that reads "BONG HiTS 4 JESUS" [sic] is First-Amendment protected speech.

I realize anyone reading this is at least somewhat familiar with the case, but I'll recap. In January 2002, when the Olympic torch passed through his home town of Juneau, Alaska, eighteen-year-old Joseph Frederick wanted to get on TV. To maximize his chances, he held up a banner reading "BONG HiTS 4 JESUS." He happened to do this across the street from his school. Upon seeing the banner, principal Deborah Morse ran across the street, ripped it out of his hands, and suspended Frederick for ten days, on the grounds that the banner could be interpreted as promoting drug use. Frederick sued on the grounds that his right to free speech had been violated.

And this is where it really gets bizarre: conservative religious groups side with civil libertarians on this one, out of concern that this case sets a precedent for silencing expression of religious beliefs. Well, guess what, Deborah Morse? Guess what, Southern Baptist Convention? 'BONG HiTS 4 JESUS' doesn't mean anything, you f***ing morons! The phrase is nonsense--unless pot smoking becomes a sacrament, and I really can't see Benedict XVI going for that anytime soon, no matter how many lapsed Catholics would doubtless become active church members again.

Although interestingly, according to the majority opinion written by Chief Justice Roberts, if Frederick had declared himself to be advocating smoking pot as a religious practice, he would have had First Amendment protection. (And to think that Christopher Hitchens and Terry Eagleton have been bad-mouthing religion lately...) Or if his banner could have been interpreted as advocating legalization of marijuana, that too would have altered matters, Roberts indicates.

Instead, Roberts argues, the most likely interpretation of Frederick's banner is either as an imperative: "[Take] bong hits" or as a celebration of drug use: "bong hits [are a good thing]."
Therefore, Deborah Morse had the right to tear down Frederick's banner, as he was advocating conduct that was illegal and that would constitute an infraction of school rules.

"Bong hits [are a good thing]"--how often do you think that sentence has appeared in a Supreme Court opinion?

But guess what? He wasn't at school! Even though the Supreme Court describes watching the Olympic torch as a "school-sponsored/school-supervised" event, the Ninth Circuit of Appeals (which ruled in favor of Frederick) noted that he was not required to submit a permission slip (as is customary for school events), teachers did not try to detain students who left, and furthermore, Frederick was not even on school property when he was holding the banner. No reasoning, however tortured, could establish that he was under the school's jurisdiction when the event happened.

For reassurance that there is still some sanity in this country, read Justice Stevens' disdainful dissent. His disgust that the Court's time was being wasted with this idiocy is palpable. It appears that the Supreme Court, like most of the other major institutions of the Republic, has been drafted into bit performances for the Industrial-Entertainment complex.

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