Morse v. Frederick

At a school-sanctioned and school-supervised event, petitioner Morse, the high school principal, saw students unfurl a banner stating “BONG HiTS 4 JESUS,” which she regarded as promoting illegal drug use. Consistent with established school policy prohibiting such messages at school events, Morse directed the students to take down the banner. When one of the students who had brought the banner to the event—respondent Frederick—refused, Morse confiscated the banner and later suspended him. The school superintendent upheld the suspension, explaining, inter alia, that Frederick was disciplined because his banner appeared to advocate illegal drug use in violation of school policy. Petitioner school board also upheld the suspension. Frederick filed suit under 42 U. S. C. §1983, alleging that the school board and Morse had violated his First Amendment rights. The District Court granted petitioners summary judgment, ruling that they were entitled to qualified immunity and that they had not infringed Frederick’s speech rights. The Ninth Circuit reversed. Accepting that Frederick acted during a school-authorized activity and that the banner expressed a positive sentiment about marijuana use, the court nonetheless found a First Amendment violation because the school punished Frederick without demonstrating that his speech threatened substantial disruption. It also concluded that Morse was not entitled to qualified immunity because Frederick’s right to display the banner was so clearly established that a reasonable principal in Morse’s position would have understood that her actions were unconstitutional.

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