City joins 'Bong Hits' mediation before next round of litigation

Posted: Sunday, February 17, 2008

The city recently became involved in the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" litigation by appearing on behalf of the Juneau School District in settlement mediation required by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The mediation was mandated before the appeals court will rehear the case on speech protections afforded under the Alaska Constitution. Juneau-Douglas High School Student Joe Frederick already lost his federal case, claiming his free-speech rights were violated, before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Last Monday, City Manager Rod Swope, City Risk Manager Tim Allen and City Attorney John Hartle joined Juneau attorney Doug Mertz, representing Frederick, in a teleconferenced mediation session run by the San Francisco-based federal appeals court.

School district attorney David Crosby confirmed he was present for the mediation, but refused further comment.

In 2002 Frederick, and others, held up a long banner that read "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" as the Olympic Torch Relay passed down Glacier Avenue. He was suspended from school and sued the school district over the incident.

Mertz continues to press the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" case, saying that the free speech issues have not been fully addressed in court.

He said speech is protected on two levels, federal and state, and he maintains that Frederick's banner was protected social and political speech under the state constitution.

The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately viewed Frederick's "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" banner as pro-drug speech, which the court ruled is not a form of speech afforded to students, as it is to adults.

Hartle said the city's direct involvement in mediation came from its role as financier and risk manager for the school district.

"It's about money," he said.

Frederick seeks $78,000 in settlement money, Mertz said.

The attorney said the content of the talks must remain confidential, but he informed Crosby previously that Frederick would settle for "considerably less." Mertz said he needed to try to recover some money for his client and some of the costs built up during the five-year life of the case.

"It makes sense to settle now before going to court," he said.

The city passed on any settlement offer that was discussed in mediation.

If the city agreed to any settlement, the first $25,000 of the agreed-upon amount would come from city coffers before insurance kicked in, Swope said.

Mertz said he would file a brief to continue the appeal process in federal court Friday.

• Contact reporter Greg Skinnerat 523-2258 or e-mail

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