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WASHINGTON - When the Supreme Court hears arguments next month in an important test of student free speech rights, the man at the center of the case will be halfway around the world.
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Joseph Frederick is teaching high school English and studying Mandarin in China. He will not say exactly where, the better to protect his solitude.
Five years ago, as a high school senior in Juneau, he was suspended after he and some friends unfurled a "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" banner at a rally to mark the visit of the Olympic torch on its way to Salt Lake City.
Frederick was across the street from the school at the time and said he was conducting an experiment on the First Amendment, not advocating either for religion or drug use.
"What the banner said was, 'Look here, I have the right to free speech and I'm asserting it,'" Frederick said in a call with reporters that was organized by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The high school principal, Deborah Morse, disagreed, viewing the banner as an unacceptable endorsement of drug use.
Frederick sued and after a trial judge sided with Morse, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the student's First Amendment speech rights had been violated.
Encouraged by former independent counsel Kenneth Starr, who is representing the Juneau school district, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.
Frederick said his schoolmates mostly did not care about his banner at the time. But he said a teacher told him of one benefit from the legal dust-up - the case became "a nice tool in getting students interested in the Bill of Rights," Frederick said.