Bong Hits saga enters year five

Suit carried all the way to U.S. Supreme Court, to be heard March 19

Posted: Sunday, January 28, 2007

Five years after Joseph Frederick was suspended for showing a banner that said, "Bong Hits 4 Jesus," he still waits for vindication.

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The 18-year-old student was trying to make a statement during the running of the torch for the 2002 Winter Olympics, his attorney said. He unfurled his banner across from Juneau-Douglas High School. Former Principal Deborah Morse walked across the street and ripped it down.

Since then, the confrontation has escalated into a court case of national importance. On March 19, it will go before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Frederick and his father say through their attorney that they are the victims of abuse by people who oppose their lawsuit. They sit in Asia in a form of exile, and they wait. They could not be reached for comment, and their attorney declined to provide contact information.

On one side of the case is the Juneau School Board. Its representatives say Frederick was at a school-sanctioned event when Morse ripped down the banner. Their argument is that administrators have the responsibility to enforce School Board policy, part of which is to discourage drug use.

On the other side is Frederick, who claims his right to free speech was violated when the sign was torn down and he was suspended for 10 days.

Frederick appealed the suspension. The School Board upheld it, and Frederick filed a lawsuit, which a federal judge dismissed in 2003. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in 2006 Frederick's civil rights had been violated. In December, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. Legal precedence and an award of several thousands of dollars in attorney's fees hang in the balance.

Doug Mertz, Frederick's co-counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union, said support is coming from groups worried about free speech.

"We've gotten a lot of support from conservative groups who are concerned about cutting back free speech in the schools could lead to deprivation of our free-speech rights," Mertz said.

The School Board also has it supporters, the National School Boards Association and the American Association of School Administrators.

Both sides in the case say they are misunderstood.

David Crosby, attorney for the School District, said there is a public perception that the School Board started this case. Crosby said the district is merely defending itself. To do otherwise would be derelict, he said. If the district loses or drops the case, it will have to pay out roughly $100,000 in legal fees, he said.

"It would be incredibly irresponsible to walk away and write a check for $100,000," he said. "Remember, Frederick sued the school board. All the money the district spent was in defense. What are you supposed to do when you are sued?"

Mertz said people don't realize the venom with which the school has pursued Frederick. He said they harassed him before the Bong hits incident, and afterwards Frederick's father was terminated from his job with the insurance company that covered the city.

He was eventually black-balled from the insurance industry, Mertz said, forcing him to move to Asia to teach English. His son followed him.

Crosby said reports of harassment against the Fredericks by the district are exaggerated.

Part of the public outcry against the lawsuit has been the public cost. Calls placed to Superintendent Peggy Cowan about the costs were forwarded to Crosby. Crosby said the costs are hard to calculate. Insurance has paid for all the attorney's fees. Ken Starr will represent the district before the Supreme Court, pro bono. The decision has not been made yet as to what district official may go to Washington, D.C., to be present during the arguments.

Juneau resident Erik Lie-Nielsen is one of those who think the case should be dropped.

"I think the true cost is probably quite heavy, and we'll probably never know what it is," he said. "What they did to this kid was unpardonable," he said. "This is the kind of thing they did in Russia."

• Will Morris can be reached at william.morris@juneauempire.com.



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