NEAL CONAN, host:
Like college kids pulling all-nighters to cramp for final exams, the Supreme Court often waits until the last week of its term to hand down its most eagerly awaited decisions. After the morning session today, we are still waiting for the big one of this session: can school districts use race as a factor in deciding where students go to school in order to achieve racial diversity.
But it looks like we're going to have to wait until Thursday for that one. The nation's highest court did issue some other important decisions today, cases involving free speech, religion, and campaign finance among others. David Savage, the Supreme Court reporter for the Los Angeles Times joins us now from his office here in Washington to tell us about today's decisions and what they mean. David, good to have you on the program.
Mr. DAVID SAVAGE (Supreme Court Reporter, Los Angeles Times): Hi, Neal.
CONAN: Let's start with that free speech case. This concerned a high school student in Alaska, who during a school-sponsored event - hung a huge banner that said, Bong Hits 4 Jesus.
Mr. SAVAGE: And he lost today - a five-to-four vote. This is a relative - this is an interesting case, although a relatively narrow decision. John Roberts spoke for the court and he said if a student puts up a sign promoting something illegal - in this case drugs - he can be punished. The - Sam Alito and Anthony Kennedy, who joined Roberts on the result - it's really interesting - they said they would not have gone along had the message been political or social.
In other words, if a student holds up a sign and says, Down With Bush or Allah is Great, that's protected by free speech, but not if the student is - has a sign or a T-shirts or is otherwise advocating something that's illegal.
CONAN: And the student said he wasn't advocating anything illegal.This was his, sort of, a nonsense thing that he saw on a skateboard somewhere, that he was just making a provocative political statement.
Mr. SAVAGE: Yes, he probably compounded his error when the principal came over and pulled down the banner. He started talking about Thomas Jefferson and the First Amendment. And his suspension was going to be five days and the principal got mad and made it 10 days. And then he sued, leading up to this case today.
CONAN: And that took what? Five years to make its way to the Supreme Court?
Mr. SAVAGE: Yes. I should say that way back in the Vietnam era, the court said high school students have free speech rights so long as they don't disrupt -their message is not disruptive. And that, sort of, where the law has been. There's a free speech right as long as you're disruptive. The court's decision pulls back from that a little bit today and says you can't advocate things that are illegal. But it's still in the end, a relatively narrow decision.
CONAN: Another decision today involved whether religious charities should be able to compete along with secular charities for government money. What was the background in this case?
Mr. SAVAGE: Well, this is a case about President Bush's faith-based initiative, where people go out - White House officials go out and urge church groups to apply for government grants or to get involved in charitable work. They were sued by a Wisconsin group that thinks the government shouldn't be promoting religion. And the court threw out their suit today, but again, on relatively narrow grounds. They said taxpayers don't have standing to challenge the government when there's no explicit appropriation involved. And I guess the idea was - if Congress actually appropriated money and said we're going to give 10 percent of it to churches, that we - any taxpayer can challenge that. But this was just government officials giving speeches and you can't sue them to challenge that.
CONAN: Since there was no specific congressional, you know, measures saying this is for religious purposes. Then, at that point, you can't sue the executive branch?
Mr. SAVAGE: That's right.
CONAN: Uh-huh. Five-to-four again?
Mr. SAVAGE: Yes. And this was, sort of, the straight conservative five and the liberal four. The John Roberts-led group stands behind President Bush and the White House, and the more liberal members say this is, come on, this in the end is promoting religion and the First Amendment doesn't allow that.
CONAN: In a third ruling, the Supreme Court struck down part of the McCain-Feingold Act, the campaign reform bill loosening restrictions on political ads that run close to Election Day.
Mr. SAVAGE: Yes. I think this is the one that have the biggest impact and your listeners and TV viewers will probably feel the impact about six months from now because I think what we're going to do is go back to the 1990s when you could turn on TV or radio and listen to these ads from some group - the center for something, or citizens for blah, blah, blah - which could be the pharmaceutical industry saying you should send a message to senator so and so that you disagree with his policy on so.
The idea was for 100 years, corporations have not been able to use corporate money to influence elections. But in the '80s and '90s, they realized that they could set up groups to take out ads that were called, quote, "issue ads," because they didn't say vote against Senator Smith. They just said Senator Smith is a bad guy and send him a message.
The McCain-Feingold bill tried to outlaw that, said no such ads 60 days before the election, 30 days before the primary. Supreme Court now has largely overturned that today and said, again, five-to-four vote with the conservative five in the majority, this is core political speech, that's the word Roberts used.
And so corporate-funded groups, union-funded groups will be able to broadcast the ads saying, you know, send a message to this politician.
CONAN: Well, wait a minute. Wasn't that exactly the argument that Mitch McConnell and others made when they believed that this act was going to be thrown out by the Supreme Court, when it was first tested just a couple of years ago?
Mr. SAVAGE: Yes. And they lost on a five-to-four vote with Sandra O'Connor in the majority and the court basically upholding law and principle in saying, yes, that is constitutional as a way to limit the influence of corporations and big union money. And essentially, this is a five-to-four the other day with - the other way with Sam Alito joining the more conservative group saying no, it's really free speech in the government, can't forbid this type of speech.
CONAN: So is McCain-Feingold by the boards?
Mr. SAVAGE: Well, remember there was another part of the McCain-Feingold Act. It was about soft money. And this case didn't affect that. But the second part, I think largely is - is largely knocked down because I think any group that really wants to do this will be able to fund these ads. And so that extends about half of McCain-Feingold was sort of knocked out today.
CONAN: Now I know that you and all the other Supreme Court reporters are desperately anxious to get on vacation as soon as the Supreme Court will finish this session and issue that decision. Give us a preview of what we're expecting on Thursday in these two desegregation cases.
Mr. SAVAGE: Well, that's a big issue of whether the government can ever use race to do something. In this case, what they think is a good thing, that is bringing about - trying to bring about some measure of integration in the public schools. You know, it's been not that many years ago when the Supreme Court was insisting that school districts desegregate.
Now, the question is if they set up - if a school district puts some racial guidelines on some of its magnet schools or some other schools and says, we don't want this school to be all white or all black and sends some other kids to other schools, do the parents have a right to object and say that's unconstitutional.
The argument sounded like five members again. The same five-member conservative group is going to say that's unconstitutional because the government - in this case, the public schools - is using race to discriminate against someone. Even as they say they're doing it for a good purpose, they can't do it.
CONAN: We'll wait for that decision on Thursday. David Savage, thanks very much.
Mr. SAVAGE: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: David Savage, the Supreme Court report for the Los Angeles Times, joining us from his office here in Washington.
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