Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Bong Hits and Americanism

No, I'm not into illegal drugs. And apparently, even if I were, I couldn't advertise it on a school campus. If you haven't heard about the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" case, now would be a good time to familiarize yourself with it. Here, the Supreme Court limited rights on student free speech, or so it would seem. If you read the deliberately sensationalist headlines on any news reporting service (CNN included) it would seem that it was a new development that schools were allowed to censor their students.

If that were the case, then why hasn't this become a Constitutional issue already? It has never been allowed, for instance, for a student to wear a shirt with a pot leaf on it. This is a clear limitation on that student's free speech, though, so is that a Constitutional issue? A friend of mine reported Southern good old boys being very disappointed indeed when shirts bearing "Old Dixie" on the front and a picture of black people working in a cotton field on the back were banned. A certain Georgia Tech fraternity may also have been dismayed at this news, but it was of course widely supported at the school. Nevertheless, isn't this a limitation on free speech, too?

Looking at other Constitutionally guaranteed rights, students can't bring guns to school. Neither, for that matter, can teachers, staff, parents, or visitors. But that's a limitation on everyone's second amendment rights to keep and bear arms, right? A minor cannot sue anyone for a perceived injustice against him, and neither can a second party bring a suit against a minor. Is this a limitation of a student's eighth amendment rights? Finally, the ninth and tenth amendments reserve non-enumerated rights to the people. But there are all sorts of laws telling minors what they can and cannot do--driving a car, getting married, and entering contracts, to name a few. That should be an abridgment of a student's Constitutional rights too.

In conclusion, of course a government has an ability to limit the rights of its minors. Whether that's right or not is another issue, and one that I'm not well enough versed in Constitutional law to comment on. But the fact is that it exists, for better or for worse.

Now for the kink.

If you dig a little deeper into this case, the incident took place outside of the school. Granted, the students were participating in a school function at the time, and that's what actually makes the case interesting. To me, this was less a case of how a student's rights can be limited, and more a case of how far a school's jurisdiction extends, and under what circumstances. Of course, the Justices thought it was about drugs, and we'll have to assume they know more about the law than I do.

Said Chief Justice Roberts: "[the principle] failing to act would send a powerful message to the students..." About what? It's not like this kid had a bong to offer hits from in the first place. Said Justice Stevens, in dissent: "[this case establishes] a special First Amendment rule permitting the censorship of any student speech that mentions drugs..." And here, I disagree too, because I still maintain this case is not about drugs.

Regardless of which side you back, the one person who was clearly wrong in all of this was the student. He contends, ""I find [the sign] absurdly funny," which it's simply not.

One topic that's always interesting to think about is the degree to which politics are acceptable in music. On one hand, I've always been adamantly "keep your mouth shut and sing" or act, direct, or otherwise entertain. On the other hand, politically-driven music can be remarkably good. One of the best examples of contemporary politically-motivated music is, of course, American Idiot by Green Day. I like American Idiot for the most part. "She's a Rebel" is probably among my top twenty favorite songs, and of course "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" was near-ubiquitous my senior year of high school, so it has a sort of pleasant nostalgia associated with it.

That said, it's way too political for me. Regardless of how you interpret its message and if you agree with it or not, this album produced the unfortunate contradiction between "this is music I like" and "this was produced by means I disagree with." It's recently come to my attention that the lead singer of the Killers, another band I really like, had something to say about American Idiot too. According to Brandon Flowers, the album displays "calculated Anti-Americanism." He further goes on to assert that "[English and German] kids aren't taking [the message] the same way that [Billie Joe Armstrong] meant it. And he knew it." Well done, Mr. Flowers.

I contend that neither Sam's Town nor American Idiot is anywhere near as representative of slices of American life, of joy, of change, and of heartbreak as Sufjan Stevens' Illinoise is. But that's just my indie-pop sensibility.

One more note on indie-pop: Of Montreal's Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer isn't as bad as it was as I first listened to it. I think the reason I hated it so much for so long is due to a recency effect. Even after a second chance (one that redeemed most of the album), "Faberge Falls for Shuggie" is truly a horrible song. And the track titles are too pretentious. And there's too much unwarranted use of gapless playback. And a lot of the harmonies are so thick that they become dissonant. But other than that, it's not a bad album.

Currently listening: "Suffer for Fashion," Of Montreal

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