TRANSCRIPT: Drugs for a Deity
"I tried to debate her over this in her office, asking, 'Why am I being suspended? This is freedom of speech!'"
FREDERICK: I tried to debate her over this in her office, asking, “Why am I being suspended? This is freedom of speech, you know, and I don’t see how I can be punished for this!” And I was simply told, no, that this is not freedom of speech, that I don’t even have freedom of speech. I quoted Thomas Jefferson to her, and then she punished me further by adding onto my suspension.
MIKE: On the morning of January 24th, 2002, 18-year-old Joe Frederick had a plan.
MATT: Joe was a senior in high school. And he knew, from a class he took on government, that students have some free speech rights.
MIKE: Some free speech rights. But how far does that go? Are there limits on the First Amendment in school? And why does it matter? Joe is about to find out.
MATT: I’m Matthew Schwartz.
MIKE: I’m Mike Vuolo.
MATT: And this… is Unprecedented.
MATT: Everybody has that one teacher who really inspires you, makes you see the world differently, makes you think. For Joe, that teacher was Gary Lehnhart, who taught a class called American Justice at Juneau-Douglas High School in Alaska.
MIKE: Mr. Lehnhart had an exercise that he liked to do with the students. It involved buttons with different phrases on them. And these phrases push the boundaries of what you can say in school.
LEHNHART: So these buttons range from a button that challenges a teacher, for instance, says: Mr. Lehnhart Sucks. Another button had an alcohol reference on it. I had one that had a picture of two women—naked, holding a surfboard—and it said: Surf Naked. And then I had a woman, almost nothing on, that said: Dress Code This.
MIKE: About half the students get to wear the buttons. They stand up and walk to the front of the classroom.
LEHNHART: One side of the room I have a sign that says “Constitutionally protected”; on the other side of the room I have “Not constitutionally protected”—or it can be censored.
MATT: In between the two signs, on the blackboard, are numbers from 0 to 9, representing the number of justices on the Supreme Court. The students have to position themselves where they think the case would end up if the Supreme Court ruled on the constitutionality of their button.
LEHNHART: Either this speech is protected, I’m going to go stand at 9-0, or this speech probably is protected, I’m going to go stand at 6-3 in favor of the speech, or vice versa: This is not protected speech. And the buttons are intended to be all over the place, and the kids generally are all over the place.
MIKE: After the kids have arranged themselves along the spectrum, the rest of the students—who have been sitting there watching all this—get to move them around.
LEHNHART: Then the two of them engage in a little debate about who’s right. And this goes on for quite a while, and some kids are getting moved back and forth, and I’m usually actually quite surprised by how conservative the kids tend to be when you get right down to it, and they tend not to support that much speech.
MATT: Mr. Lehnhart had used this lesson for years. And for years students always arranged those buttons along that whole 0 to 9 spectrum. But in 2001, along comes a student who’s different from all the rest—Joe Frederick.
LEHNHART: It was quite surprising. I’d never had anyone react to it like Joe did. When it was his turn at the end—and he made a very big show of it—he walked up there and he started at the end of the censored speech person and he kind of pushed that person towards the other side, and then he just kept going and he kept gathering people as he went.
MIKE: Mr. Lehnhart Sucks?
MIKE: Naked women? Dress Code This?
LEHNHART: Until he pushed everybody over there, on the protected speech. And, you know, at that point what he was saying was he believed that all student speech should be protected.
MIKE: That lesson stayed with Joe. He thought about what you could and couldn’t say in school. He later spoke with the ACLU about what was going through his mind at the time.
FREDERICK: I had been in a government class at the high school. The semester before we’d done projects on the bill of rights and famous cases. And I just seemed to look around me, and it just didn’t seem like I had the rights that my textbooks said I did. In America, from the time you’re in primary school, you’re taught that you have the freedom of speech. And everybody just assumes, I have freedom of speech—you know, that’s nice—but nobody ever really uses it. So therefore they don’t really know that they have it. So I was sort of curious to find out more precisely exactly what these rights meant: what I could do, what I couldn’t do.
MATT: Joe is hatching a sort of experiment to prove that the First Amendment is as robust and broad as he believes it to be. He wanted to come up with a phrase that might test the limits of free speech—he even workshopped his ideas with Mr. Lehnhart—but Joe kept the exact plan to himself.
LEHNHART: I had no idea what Joe was up to. I knew Joe was up to something, because I remember some moments where he came after class and he threw some ideas out about what would be protected. But he never threw out the idea to me that he was going to paint it on a sign and put it in the parade.
MIKE: Yeah, there is a parade involved. Joe wasn’t the kind of person to do anything in half-measures. It’s January of 2002. The Winter Games are coming to Salt Lake City, but first the Olympic torch is gonna pass through Alaska. Juneau is about to get its brief moment in the spotlight.
LEHNHART: The course went by the high school and so the principal decided that this would be a great thing to let all the students out of their second hour class to stand on both sides of the road and cheer as this torch runner went by.
MATT: Joe is standing across the street, off school grounds.
LEHNHART: He was standing in front of a teacher’s house, actually.
MATT: Standing right there on Glacier Avenue, waiting for the torch to approach, waiting for the TV cameras to point in his direction, waiting—with a 14-foot banner. And as the runner approaches, holding the torch high, Joe and his friends unfurl the banner. It reads: BONG HITS FOR JESUS.
MIKE: Bong hits for Jesus.
MATT: For Jesus.
MIKE: Like the marijuana accessory.
MATT: Like the hits that you take off of a bong.
MIKE: Am I supposed to know what Bong Hits for Jesus means?
MATT: No, no. Because no one knew exactly what it meant. But Joe’s principal was not having it. She sees the banner. She runs across the street.
FREDERICK: Because she decided that she felt it was inappropriate and offensive, that she decided to confiscate it.
MATT: Principal Deborah Morse gives Joe a five-day suspension.
FREDERICK: I tried to debate her over this in her office, asking, “Why am I being suspended? This is freedom of speech, you know, and I don’t see how I can be punished for this!” And I was simply told, no, that this is not freedom of speech, that I don’t even have freedom of speech. I quoted Thomas Jefferson to her, and then she punished me further by adding onto my suspension. I was really confused, ‘cuz I had thought that I had these rights.
MIKE: Here’s Joe’s teacher, Gary Lehnhart.
LEHNHART: Slowly, over the next few days, I remember the principal having a conversation with me about it and wondering whether I thought that she did the right thing or that she was allowed to censor his speech, and I said, you know, impossible to know for sure.
MATT: Joe’s dad contacts the ACLU, which finds Joe a lawyer, and together they try to work something out with the school board: Does Joe really need to be suspended? How about just a good talking to?
MERTZ: Which is what the principal should have done …
MATT: This is Joe’s attorney, Doug Mertz.
MERTZ: … used it as a time to educate him about what responsible conduct is. We got very little sympathy, so eventually we had to bring a suit for violation of his First Amendment rights.
MIKE: At the time, no one imagined that Joe intended to take a stand. Here again is Joe’s teacher Gary Lehnhart.
LEHNHART: Nobody really, I think, saw that, at that moment, that this was like a big First Amendment challenge. I think people just saw it as Joe doing something crazy.
MATT: Principal Morse saw this kid who likes to challenge the status quo, and who—during Juneau’s shining moment—was holding up a banner that talked about bong hits for Jesus.
MIKE: She thought he was advocating drug use. Joe insists that’s not what he was doing.
MATT: We know that kids have free speech rights, but how far do those rights go in school? Joe set out that morning wondering if the First Amendment would protect him. Joe would get his answer from the Supreme Court.
MIKE: After the break, the Justices ask: Does anybody know what Bong Hits for Jesus means? Anybody?
MATT: Stick around.
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