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Students on the Drug War’s Front Lines


On March 20, student free speech joined the panoply of endangered fundamental rights ready to be stripped away from us due to the tragedy of the drug war. Kenneth Starr, former solicitor general, who reached broad fame by highlighting a presidential sex scandal in the Clinton years, stood before the land’s highest court to argue the “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” case.

It all started innocently enough when 18-year-old Joe Frederick sought his “15 minutes of fame” by pulling a harmless prank. In 2002, in front of his high school, during a procession of the Olympic torch relay brigade, Joe unrolled a 14-foot banner bearing the words “Bong Hits 4 Jesus.” Soon after the cameras caught the act, his high school principal suspended him for ten days for displaying the banner, in apparent violation of school policy limiting speech that promotes illegal drug use. Frederick soon brought a lawsuit against his school principal in which the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in his favor, finding that the principal had violated Frederick’s First Amendment rights.

The case subsequently reached the Supreme Court where Starr argued on behalf of the former principal and the school. Starr developed a legal strategy to defend the school’s position that the language in question on the banner clearly went against the school’s anti-drug mission. He even had former Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey stand beside him on the Supreme Court steps for a photo op. Frederick’s lawyer countered Starr’s argument explaining that the case was really all about free speech, and not a case about drugs or drug use. Win or lose, Starr used this worldwide platform to advocate the government’s zero-tolerance policy views on drugs.

Students are now on the front lines of the war on drugs. Whether it be random, suspicionless student drug testing, or having police dogs sniffing around school lockers for drugs, students are now feeling the heavy-handedness of the government’s overzealous efforts to keep them “drug-free.” Get busted smoking a joint and lose federal funding for education. Talk about bong hits and face suspension. Where will it end?

In the government’s attempt to win the drug war, it has little regard for our precious given rights as outlined in the Constitution. Drug users and people wrestling with addiction everywhere are routinely demonized by the moral majority. Chip by chip or, in this case, bong hit by bong hit, our fundamental rights are going up in smoke. Americans across the land must be made better aware of this travesty.

Everyone who is concerned about free speech should be concerned with the outcome of this case. If the government can silence us about the drug war today, they can silence us on Iraq tomorrow and global warming the day after that.

ANTHONY PAPA is the author of 15 Years to Life: How I Painted My Way to Freedom and Communications Specialist for Drug Policy Alliance. He can be reached at:


Anthony Papa is the Manager of Media and Artist Relations for the Drug Policy Alliance and the author of This Side of Freedom: Life After Lockdown.

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