WASHINGTON – A high school senior's 14-foot banner proclaiming "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" gave the Supreme Court a provocative prop for a lively argument Monday about the extent of schools' control over student speech.
If the justices conclude Joseph Frederick's homemade sign was a pro-drug message, they are likely to side with principal Deborah Morse. She suspended Frederick in 2002 when he unfurled the banner across the street from the school in Juneau, Alaska.
"I thought we wanted our schools to teach something, including something besides just basic elements, including the character formation and not to use drugs," Chief Justice Roberts said Monday.
But the court could rule for Frederick if it determines that he was, as he has contended, conducting a free-speech experiment using a nonsensical message that contained no pitch for drug use.
"It sounds like just a kid's provocative statement to me," Justice David Souter said.
Students in public schools don't have the same rights as adults, but neither do they leave their constitutional protections at the schoolhouse gate, as the court said in a landmark speech-rights ruling from Vietnam era.
Morse, now a Juneau schools' administrator, was at the court Monday. Frederick, teaching and studying in China, was not.
Former independent counsel Kenneth Starr, whose Kirkland and Ellis law firm is representing Morse for free, argued that the justices should defer to the judgment of the principal. Morse reasonably interpreted the banner as a pro-drug message, despite what Frederick intended, Starr said.
School officials are perfectly within their rights to curtail student speech that advocates drug use, he said. "The message here is, in fact, critical," Starr said.
Starr, joined by the Bush administration, also asked the court to adopt a broad rule that could essentially give public schools the right to clamp down on any speech with which they disagree. That argument did not appear to have widespread support among the justices.
Douglas Mertz of Juneau, Frederick's lawyer, struggled to keep the focus away from drugs. "This is a case about free speech. It is not a case about drugs," Mertz said.
Conservative groups that often are allied with the administration are backing Frederick out of concern that a ruling for Morse would let schools clamp down on religious expression, including speech that might oppose homosexuality or abortion.
The outcome also could stray from the conservative-liberal split that often characterizes controversial cases.
Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote several opinions in favor of student speech rights while a federal appeals court judge, seemed more concerned by the administration's broad argument in favor of schools than did his fellow conservatives.
"I find that a very, a very disturbing argument," Alito told Justice Department lawyer Edwin Kneedler, "because schools have ... defined their educational mission so broadly that they can suppress all sorts of political speech and speech expressing fundamental values of the students, under the banner of getting rid of speech that's inconsistent with educational missions."
Justice Stephen Breyer, in the court's liberal wing, said he was troubled a ruling in favor of Frederick, even if he was making a joke, would make it harder to principals to run their schools.
"We'll suddenly see people testing limits all over the place in the high schools," Breyer said.
On the other hand, he said, a decision favorable to the schools "may really limit people's rights on free speech. That's what I'm struggling with."
After the arguments, two dozen sign-carrying demonstrators chanted, "Teachers should teach, not limit free speech."
Scores of students waited outside the court early Monday for a chance to listen to the arguments.
Ninth graders on a class trip from Mosinee, Wis., were in general agreement on the issue. Cari Kemp, 15, said Frederick's protest was "just a joke" but that "the school took it too far."
The justices, as they often do, sought to probe the limits of each side's argument by altering the facts one way or another.
What if, Souter asked, a student held a small sign in a Shakespeare class with the same message Frederick used. "If the kids look around and they say, well, so and so has got his bong sign again," Souter said, as laughter filled the courtroom. "They then return to Macbeth. Does the teacher have to, does the school have to tolerate that sign in the Shakespeare class?"
Justice Antonin Scalia, ridiculing the notion that schools should have to tolerate speech that seems to support illegal activities, asked about a button that says, "Smoke Pot, It's Fun."
Or, he wondered, should the court conclude that only speech in support of violent crime can be censored. "'Extortion Is Profitable,' that's okay?" Scalia asked.
A clear majority seemed to side with Morse on one point, that she shouldn't have to compensate Frederick. A federal appeals court said Morse would have to pay Frederick because she should have known her actions violated the Constitution.
A decision is expected by July.
The case is Morse v. Frederick, 06-278.
Other cases involving students' First Amendment rights are making their way through the courts:
— In Vermont, middle school student Zachary Guiles wore a T-shirt that used images of cocaine use and a martini glass to criticize President Bush. The shirt also called Bush "chicken-hawk-in-chief" and said he was on a "world domination tour."
• Learn about what cases the high court will consider in FOXNews.com's Supreme Court Center.
School authorities said the shirt violated a dress code that bans clothing that promotes use of alcohol or drugs. Guiles taped over the images, sued and won rulings from lower federal courts. The Supreme Court has yet to act on the school district's appeal.
— In suburban San Diego, Tyler Harper was pulled from his class for wearing a T-shirt bearing the words "homosexuality is shameful." Harper said he wore the shirt after his school backed an event meant to show support for homosexuals, bisexuals and trans-gender students.
Harper sued the Poway Unified School District for violating his civil rights, contending he was suspended for expressing "sincerely held religious beliefs." The school said its dress code is designed to prevent disruption.
A federal judge upheld the policy and the same federal appeals court that sided with Frederick now is considering the case.
— A national Christian legal group sued a suburban Philadelphia school district on free-speech grounds, saying the district censors prayer club members and threatens discipline if students speak out against homosexuality.
The lawsuit filed by the Alliance Defense Fund accuses the Downingtown Area School District of improperly forcing a student group to drop explicitly Christian or Scriptural references from its literature, and to meet as the "Prayer Club" instead of the preferred "Bible Club."
Get complete coverage in FOXNews.com's Supreme Court.