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Justices Consider Rights Issues

It is an argument made by some of the conservative legal and religious groups that are in an unlikely alliance with Frederick and his chief sponsor, the American Civil Liberties Union.

But some justices seem uneasy about labeling as protected free speech what Justice Anthony M. Kennedy called Frederick's "sophomoric" message. Justice Antonin Scalia wondered whether schools could simply forbid speech that advocates illegal acts. Kennedy did not agree with Frederick's attorney, Douglas Mertz, that his client's action was not disruptive.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. seemed to indicate that maybe student free speech could end at the schoolhouse gate. "I mean, why is it that the classroom ought to be a forum for political debate simply because the students want to put that on their agenda?" he asked.

In rancher Robbins's case, the justices were called to consider what the government said would be a major, and unwarranted, expansion of the right to sue government officials for alleged transgressions.

Robbins's feud with the Bureau of Land Management began almost as soon as the Alabama-born man bought his vast High Island Ranch, which stretches nearly 40 miles. The government wanted an easement on part of his ranch to get to public land. Why that did not happen is in dispute, but Robbins alleges a long series of harassment from the government to get him to give up the easement.

An appellate court said Robbins could proceed with his lawsuit charging bureau agents with extortion and conspiracy under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO).

"When someone says, 'I do not want to give you my property, you have to take it from me and give me just compensation,' the position of the government here is that there is no constitutional limit on the kind of retaliation they can engage in," said Harvard law professor Laurence H. Tribe, who is representing Robbins.

But the solicitor general's office argues that the RICO statute was never intended to punish government agents -- even overzealous ones.

What Robbins calls extortion, Roberts said, might also be called "trying to save the taxpayers money and getting the type of reciprocal agreement with this landowner that they have got with thousands of others."

The cases are Morse v. Frederick, No. 06-278, and Wilkie v. Robbins, No. 06-219.

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