Joseph Frederick unfurled his homemade sign on a winter morning in 2002, as the Olympic torch made its way through Juneau, Alaska, en route to the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.I've already written elsewhere:
Frederick said the banner was a nonsensical message that he first saw on a snowboard. He intended the banner to proclaim his right to say anything at all.
His principal, Deborah Morse, said the phrase was a pro-drug message that had no place at a school-sanctioned event. Frederick denied that he was advocating for drug use.
"The message on Frederick's banner is cryptic," Roberts said. "But Principal Morse thought the banner would be interpreted by those viewing it as promoting illegal drug use, and that interpretation is plainly a reasonable one."
While academics might posit that meaning is a function of the text, or of the author's intent, or of a transaction between author and reader mediated via text, when it comes to this case, school administrators are essentially reader response theorists. What matters isn't what Frederick wrote, so much as what effect it would have on its readers, no matter how nonsensical the message.Chief Justice John "Stanley Fish" Roberts, writing for the Court, essentially adopted that hermeneutic.
Update: The opinion is here [pdf].
Update II: This is how the Court's thinking has evolved over time: from "materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school" (the Tinker standard) to "inconsistent with the school's educational mission" (the ham-fisted administrator standard).
Update III: Law prof Eugene Volokh tries to understand Alito's ruling, which he sees as controlling the case.