Morse v. Frederick
Frederick sued Morse, the principal of his high school, under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that his First Amendment rights had been violated when Morse suspended him for ten days after he unfurled a banner with the message "Bong hits 4 Jesus" during a televised parade. The parade took place during the school day; students had been released from school to watch the parade; faculty were present and loosely supervising the event. Frederick was standing across the street from the school when he displayed the banner. Frederick unsuccessfully appealed his suspension administratively before filing his civil rights claim in district court. The district court ruled in favor of the principal.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the case was governed by Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, in which the Supreme Court held that school authorities may only suppress the speech of students at school if the authorities can reasonably predict "substantial disruption of or material interference with school activities" as a result of the speech. Noting that Morse could not have been concerned about the disruption of educational activities resulting from Frederick's speech, the Ninth Circuit reasoned that Morse could not punish Frederick's non-disruptive, off-campus speech, even though he was a student, the speech took place during a school-authorized activity, and the speech promoted a social message contrary to the one favored by the school.
Finally, the Ninth Circuit held that Morse was not entitled to "qualified immunity" from money damages, because her conduct violated Frederick's constitutional rights, the right was "clearly established" under the law, and it would be clear to a reasonable principal that her conduct was unlawful in the situation [she] confronted.
1. Whether the First Amendment allows public schools to prohibit students from displaying messages promoting the use of illegal substances at school-sponsored, faculty supervised events.
2. Whether the Ninth Circuit departed from established principles of qualified immunity in holding that a public high school principal was liable in a damages lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 when, pursuant to the school district’s policy against displaying messages promoting illegal substances, she disciplined a student for displaying a large banner with a slang marijuana reference at a school-sponsored, faculty supervised event.