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 usein other words, that it can most reasonably be interpreted as suchthat conclusion practically refutes itself. This is a nonsense message, not advocacy. The Courts 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.