School Board tries to recover 'Bong Hits' court fees

Posted: Thursday, January 24, 2008

A lawyer representing the former local high school student whose "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" banner unfurled a lengthy free speech debate is accusing the attorney for the Juneau School Board of harassing his client over a $5,000 legal bill.

Douglas Mertz said the board's lawyer is trying to force his client, Joseph Frederick, to leave his job in China to face a February deposition in Juneau regarding his personal finances.

"The only motive here is revenge, retaliation and harassment," said Mertz, who filed a motion Tuesday with the U.S. District Court to prevent Frederick from being forced to appear in court in person.

Frederick was ordered to pay court fees of about $2,000 each for a U.S. Supreme Court case and the most recent District Court case he lost. With added interest, his fees total roughly $5,000, Mertz said.

The board's lawyer, David Crosby, said he was not harassing Frederick but simply trying to get the money owed to his client. Until that money is paid, Crosby said, it is his client's legal right to know what Frederick's personal finances are.

Crosby said he is flexible on when or even if Frederick needs to come to Juneau to testify about his personal wealth, but must receive formal, written responses to his questions first. Crosby has requested copies of pay stubs, tax returns and Frederick's Social Security number, among other items.

Crosby said the informal information he's received from Mertz and Frederick so far is incomplete and worth "nothing."

"(Mertz) wants special treatment for his client here," Crosby said.

Andi Story, the board's president, deferred all questions about the lawsuit to Crosby. And Peggy Cowan, the Juneau School District's superintendent, was out of town Wednesday and could not be reached for comment.

But School Board member Mark Choate was upset with Crosby's actions and said it was "inappropriate" for the attorney to seek such a small amount on the district's behalf.

"That's bull," Choate said. "That's gamesmanship of the highest rank."

In 2002, then- Juneau-Douglas High School Principal Deborah Morse took down Frederick's now famous banner that said "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" at a school-sponsored, off-campus event, and suspended him from school.

Frederick sued and the case eventually went to the Supreme Court, which sided with Morse and the board in 2007. Frederick then sued in District Court to determine if his actions were protected by the Alaska Constitution and if his banner constituted a legitimate political or social protest.

That court also favored the board, but Frederick is appealing the decision. The School Board rejected a settlement offer from Frederick asking for $8,000 for himself and $20,000 for legal fees after the District Court ruling.

Mertz said lawyers typically wait until a case is settled before moving forward with financial requests such as Crosby's.

But Crosby said the decision to further the issue was Frederick's, despite the fact that he'd already lost to the U.S. Supreme Court and had his case deemed "moot" in District Court.

"If (Frederick) wants this thing to go away, it can go away," Crosby said.

Mertz said Frederick cannot cover court costs and Crosby is trying to punish him for having the "effrontery" to take his case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Frederick has sold the rights to his story to a movie studio, but Mertz said his client did not receive a large amount.

"I'm sure that's all gone," Mertz said.

The attorney said the slow mail system between China and the United States has hampered his client's ability to send written answers regarding details of his finances to Crosby. Mertz said he has offered to have his client testify by telephone, but that Crosby flatly refused.

In an e-mail to Mertz, Crosby wrote that if Frederick "had the financial wherewithal to attend high profile Supreme Court proceedings and to return to Juneau for Forth of July parades and publicity appearances, he can make himself available for the normal discovery contemplated by the federal rules, just like any other litigant."

Mertz said Frederick's trip to Juneau for the Fourth of July was paid for by supporters, and he never attended the Supreme Court hearings.

Frederick did recently send Crosby a written affidavit saying he lived in China, was an English teacher and made about $650 a month. He also said that he is unable to make payments on two credit cards and may "have to consider a personal bankruptcy" when he returns to the United States.

The affidavit was signed by Frederick and an official, whose name and title were written solely in Chinese. Crosby said the affidavit was vague and selective, and did not answer the questions legally required of Frederick.

"He just doesn't want to respond to the questions," said Crosby, adding that he will soon be responding to Mertz's motion. Mertz then has a chance to respond to Crosby before a judge has to decide on the motion.

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