Carrots that eat milk

When my sister and I were little, we came up with the sentence which is the title of this post (during a trip to Jenolan Caves). We found it hilarious because it made no sense. Carrots are incapable of eating, and even if they were capable, they couldn’t “eat” milk anyway. Yeah, we were strange little kids.

Dave from Balneus has drawn my attention to this interesting linguistic analysis of the US Supreme Court’s recent decision in Morse v Frederick, also known as the “Bong HiTS 4 Jesus” case. The events took place on 24 January 2002 when the Olympic Torch Relay passed through Juneau in Alaska, en route to Salt Lake City in Utah for the Winter Olympic Games. The Torch Relay passed by Juneau-Douglas High School, and the principal, Deborah Morse, decided to let students watch it. As the torchbearers and camera crew passed by the high school, Frederick and his friends unfurled a 14-foot banner which read “Bong HiTS 4 Jesus”. Morse immediately crossed the street and asked the students to take the banner down. Everyone but Frederick complied. Morse then confiscated the banner and suspended Frederick for 10 days. This was upheld by the school administration. Frederick then brought a legal action alleging that his First Amendment right to freedom of speech had been violated. It went all the way to the Supreme Court.

A majority of the Supreme Court upheld the school’s actions, saying the school was within its rights to cause Frederick to take the banner down. Roberts CJ said:

At least two interpretations of the words on the banner demonstrate that the sign advocated the use of illegal drugs. First, the phrase could be interpreted as an imperative: “”[Take] bong hits –” . . .”—a message equivalent, as Morse explained in her declaration, to “smoke marijuana” or “use an illegal drug.” Alternatively, the phrase could be viewed as celebrating drug use — “—“bong hits [are a good thing],” or “[we take] bong hits” — ”—and we discern no meaningful distinction between celebrating illegal drug use in the midst of fellow students and outright advocacy or promotion.

Accordingly, the school had a right to prohibit banners such as that displayed by Frederick.

The minority found that the school did not have a right to prohibit the banner because it did not advocate drug use. In fact, the minority was of the opinion that the banner said very little of sense whatsoever:

To the extent the Court independently finds that BONG HiTS 4 JESUS” objectively amounts to the advocacy of illegal drug use—in other words, that it can most reasonably be interpreted as such—that conclusion practically refutes itself. This is a nonsense message, not advocacy. The Court’s feeble effort to divine its hidden meaning is strong evidence of that. Ante at 7 (positing that the banner might mean, alternatively, “‘[Take] bong hits,’ ‘bong hits [are a good thing]”,” or “”‘[we take] bong hits’”). Frederick’’s credible and uncontradicted explanation for the message— — he just wanted to get on television— — is also relevant because a speaker who does not intend to persuade his audience can hardly be said to be advocating anything. But most importantly, it takes real imagination to read a “cryptic” message…with a slanting drug reference as an incitement to drug use. Admittedly, some high school students (including those who use drugs) are dumb. Most students, however, do not shed their brains at the schoolhouse gate, and most students know dumb advocacy when they see it. The notion that the message on this banner would actually persuade either the average student or even the dumbest one to change his or her behavior is most implausible. That the Court believes such a silly message can be proscribed as advocacy underscores the novelty of its position, and suggests that the principle it articulates has no stopping point. Even if advocacy could somehow be wedged into Frederick’’s obtuse reference to marijuana, that advocacy was at best subtle and ambiguous. … If this were a close —case, the tie would have to go to Frederick’’s speech, not to the principal’’s strained reading of his quixotic message.

The linguistic analysis of the judgment finds the minority opinion more convincing. Bill Poser says:

That an ill-formed or incomplete utterance might have no semantic interpretation is of course completely uncontroversial. Thus, from a linguistic point of view, it is perfectly possible that the words on the banner might have meant nothing at all. Frederick’s explanation of his motivation for displaying the banner provides a plausible account of his use of words that did not mean anything.

It is a silly message. It is deliberately courting controversy by mingling marijuana use with the name Jesus. Nevertheless, if I were a Christian, I suspect I would find it offensive. As a non-Christian, I simply find it ridiculous and childish. But as far as I can see, “Bong HiTS 4 Jesus” has no clear meaning, and makes no more sense than my sister’s and my phrase “carrots that eat milk”.

I can’t help noticing the irony that Frederick’s message (whatever it means) has gotten far more exposure than it otherwise might have done if the school had just told him off and dismissed it as a attention-seeking prank. It reminds me a little of the tantrums thrown my toddler. The maternal health nurse recommends that I ignore the tantrums, because the object is to get attention, and any attention, even bad attention is better than none. Given that the object of the prank was to seek attention and controversy, Fredericks would have been better off rewarded with no attention whatsoever.

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12 Comments

Filed under blasphemy, christianity, courts, drugs, education, freedom of speech, human rights, law, religion, USA

12 responses to “Carrots that eat milk

  1. Just had a flash of on realizing there are other meaning that might make more sense given LanguageLogs further work (although they didn’t think of it this way) on all the different meaning of the offending word
    meanings,
    and given senses 4,5, and 6 (the (n) sound of metal struck by a sledgehammer, or the strike (vi or vt) that produces such a sound), the “bong” hits could also be seen as an exhortation to ring church bells or the like, something that makes more sense of the “phrase”, and advocating an action most of the good Christian citizens of Juneau would applaud.

    Of course, if sense 7 (Indian English slang term for a person from Bengal) was inferred, they could do him for inciting racial-or-religiously motivated violence.

    If presented with the possibility of parsing that made more sense (making bell-like sounds), then they would have been hard-pressed to do the kid based on a less-sensible interpretation. Or have I missed something?

  2. I envisage a large gong, with someone hitting it, and saying, “Hallelujah!” Makes more sense than anything else the Court came up with. Or, as you say, it could mean a deep church bell being repeatedly tolled.

    Or it could be a Bengali Christian boxer, fighting for his religion? But describing a Bengali as a “Bong” sounds pejorative. It doesn’t sound very nice.

    These interpretations make more sense than any other grammatical construction I can put on the banner.

    Coincidentally, my daughter is singing “Bing Bong Bah! Bing Bong Bah!” right at this very minute. She loves to make up little songs.

    …No, she’s now switched to “Looby looby, looby looby!”

  3. marcellous

    As you may have noticed, I have posted about a matter which has some free-speech implications rather closer to home, save that this free speech (if it is that) can less easily be dismissed as simply silly.

  4. CovenantBride

    well…i am a christian and i agree with u…it was silly and childish…and really…at some point..we gotta understand kids are kids…i really think suspension was a bit extreme for him…be bless… -g-

  5. pete m

    HiTS jumbled means SHiT. People can make out a word as a different meaning to that spelled out.

    me thinks they decided on saying bong and shit, and threw in jesus to hide their evil intentions!

  6. Ah, the First Amendment! If only it were more loved by more Americans as the Second. I believe the Supreme Court upheld HUAC’s right to deny accused persons their rights under the First Amendment during the 40s & 50s. That is, it was not within their rights to say, “Yes, I am a communist and under our First Amendment I have every right to be.” So its application has always been a little fluid.

  7. Oh, and also do you remember the 1993 or 94 “Jeff Kennett must die” banner that someone hung out a boarding house window? and (I think)unsuccessfully defended whatever charge he faced by saying, “Well, everyone must die.” I’ll see if I can research this one.

  8. I think I lived in the UK during that time – I must have missed that one. They do say the only certainties in life are death and taxes, but I think specifically saying that a political leader must die is a little unwise – it’s never going to go down well.

  9. fairlane

    If the kid has half a brain he’ll start printing the tee shirts and bumper stickers now!

    This is our new “Right Wing” Supreme Court.

    In a few years LE, I might be asking you if you have any relatives or friends I can marry in order to become an Australian citizen.

    I need to find someone to sue to get some extra money for my move. Hey, these are not my pants!

  10. The thing is, the courts are so used to interpreting the nonsense dished out by the parliaments that they can’t divine real nonsense if it pokes them in the eye.

  11. Can you include Stephen’s blog in the Club Troppo feed for Missing Link? I’d do it, but I’m likely to forget before tomorrow. Add it to the lawbloggers’ folder.

    Ta.

  12. Pingback: Balneus Posts on Moore v Fredericks, a.k.a “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” case «

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