It’s rare that arguments about something as stupid as a banner declaring “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” make their way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
This has been a fairly common theme in the press. I’ve read a number of articles that have disparaged Joseph Frederick for his stupid, immature banner, and the Supreme Court for choosing such a horrible phrase to challenge first amendment case law, and yet, in most cases, the only reason those articles were written was because of the phrase “Bong Hits 4 Jesus.”
It’s a phrase that has uncommon power.
Frederick says he got it off a surfboard sticker and just thought it was a nonsensical and funny way to test his freedom of speech. And it worked. Big time. Frederick hoped that he might get on TV, but he managed even better. He got his speech suppressed by Principal Morse, and “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” was loosed upon the world.
Last August, 3 1/2 years after the event, Anchorage Daily News’ Beth Bragg noted that Frederick had been so massively successful, that a google search for “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” returned 14,100 results.
I just did a search on the exact phrase and got 1.2 million google results. Another 166,000 for the slightly incorrect “Bong Hits for Jesus.” Over 700 current news items. Over 4,000 blog entries. As I saw this, I thought that maybe I should capitalize by selling “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” T-Shirts (and discovered that I wasn’t the first). What other Supreme Court case gets this kind of interest?
There’s something going on here. I think it’s interesting to ask why Principal Morse felt so powerfully compelled to remove the banner. She admits that it was the content, and not merely that there was a banner. Why is Ken Starr to eager to take on the case? Why are people responding so strongly (in one way or the other) to the phrase?
“Bong hits,” by itself, would clearly be about smoking pot. But when you add “Jesus” it all changes. Otherwise, what are these bong hits — something to smoke while worshipping, or a gift of herb to the Lord? Obviously, neither. The significance of “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” is that it draws upon two very controversial (sometimes taboo) subjects and puts them together in a disturbing way using a word structure that is inherently funny. Even the use of the number “4” instead of the word “for” is significant in terms of purposefully reducing literal meaning. This takes an “immature, stupid phrase” and turns it into a statement of individuality and defiance.
Do I think Frederick consciously thought all this out? No. I’m guessing he instinctively recognized the brilliance of the phrase as an abstract statement of rebellion and free speech.
And to people like Morse, they instinctively recognize the phrase as an attack on their authoritarian power, even as they struggle to attach a specific meaning.
In a day where authoritarian power has developed in strength, attacks on that power are revolutionary.
“No Taxation Without Representation.” “Don’t Tread on Me.” “Bong Hits for Jesus”? Hmmm….