Empire editorial: Enough already; drop the bong hits issue

Posted: Friday, January 25, 2008

The Juneau School District's decision to go after former student Joseph Frederick to pay its court fees demonstrates how the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" saga has degenerated.

The district appears to be acting out of spite, especially if one considers that $5,000 is just a drop in the bucket compared to its overall operating budget.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that the school district did indeed have the right to suspend Frederick from school after he unfurled a banner reading "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" at a 2002 Olympic torch rally, a school-sponsored event.

Back in November, Frederick's attorney Doug Mertz offered to drop the case if the Juneau School District paid $8,000 to his client and $20,000 for legal fees. The Juneau School Board refused, and Mertz promptly filed an appeal over state constitutional issues with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

What started as a quest to ensure Alaska students' free speech rights - a worthy cause - has fizzled. After losing twice in court last year - and once in the nation's highest court - Frederick and Mertz should put this issue to rest. The school district shouldn't have to compensate Frederick for his failed lawsuits.

Last July, School District Superintendent Peggy Cowan cleared Frederick's suspension from school, and the young man at the center of the case has sold the movie rights to his story. It's time to move on.

And the school district should let go of this case as well. The amount of money Frederick owes is chump change to the district, but a large chunk of money to an English teacher making $650 a month in China. The district's fees are covered by insurance and are hardly a burden.

But right now, Mertz and his client are at an impasse with the school district. Mertz says the district is insisting that Frederick leave his job in China to fill out a deposition about his finances. The district's attorney, David Crosby, said he's flexible on when or if Frederick needs to return to Juneau for testimony, but he does need to properly respond to written questions. Mertz filed a motion in U.S. District Court to prevent Frederick from being forced to appear in person. Now the district's attorney says he will respond to Mertz' motion soon.

This legal tit for tat must end. Let's drop the bong hits case once and for all.

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