School hosts free speech forum

Discussion at JDHS part of settlement agreement in 'Bong Hits 4 Jesus' case

Posted: Sunday, March 22, 2009

A free speech forum was held on Friday at the Juneau-Douglas High School auditorium as part of a settlement agreement in the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" saga.

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Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire
Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire

The forum was held to educate students about their First Amendment rights. It came more than seven years after then-senior Joseph Frederick was suspended for unfurling a banner across the street from the school during the Olympic Torch Relay that read "Bong Hits 4 Jesus." Frederick fought the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, ultimately losing. But the case is now regarded as a landmark decision in student speech rights.

Superintendent Peggy Cowan said the Juneau School District can now put this issue aside and continue to focus on its educational mission.

"Obviously there's a lot we learned from it and the students continue to learn from it, and we'll apply the principles that the Supreme Court articulated in it so it does have some lasting effect, but this is the last activity directly related to it," she said.

University of Washington Law School professor Stewart Jay moderated the forum and discussed laws on student speech with Juneau School District attorney Ann Gifford and Frederick's attorney, Douglas Mertz. Both sides still continue to disagree on details of the case, but all parties emphasized that students do have rights in school, although they are not the same as the public domain.

"School, kind of like prisons and military bases, are considered to be a special exception to this rule that you get to say whatever you feel like," Jay told the students. "I don't want to give you the impression that schools are just like prisons, quite the contrary. What the Supreme Court has said is students need to have significant free speech rights."

He said students do not shed their freedom of speech or rights of expression when they enter the schoolhouse door, but emphasized that they cannot participate in behavior that is disruptive or is deemed harmful to themselves or others.

"The purpose of you being in school is to be educated, and you have to have an environment that is conducive to education," Jay said. "You also have to have an environment that is safe for the students so that they are not afraid to come to school and get their education."

He said it is evident that students continue to apply their free speech rights at JDHS.

"Having been here yesterday teaching a bunch of classes, there was plenty of freedom of expression that was occurring in all forms," Jay said.

Mertz told the students there are obvious things they cannot do in school, such as disrupt classes, advocate drug use or use pornography. And he advised them to have a clear message if they choose to advocate for something that may offend people.

"Because the right of free expression is so important, you should not engage in expressions that essentially shows a lack or respect for school administrators, school faculty and fellow students," he said. "Lack of respect, you may have a constitutional right to do it, but it doesn't get you anywhere."

Gifford said that the district's concern is to maintain a safe and healthy school environment that doesn't allow students to advocate illegal drug use or pressure other students into dangerous behavior.

"Most of you know that Juneau has a bad drug problem," she said. "And we had a problem in 2002 when Joseph Frederick was a senior and you all were in elementary school, and since then it has only gotten worse."

Gifford said there are rules against harassing and bullying speech, but said students also have the right to use express themselves and debate issues even if it may offend people, as long as it isn't disruptive.

"Juneau School District is not trying to restrict your speech, you political or your religious speech," she said. "And the district doesn't try to restrict speech just because an administrator disagrees with it, or because it offends someone. What the district's concern is, is with speech that is potentially harmful to us and to others."

Frederick, who came back to Juneau for the week from China to attend the forum and receive a college scholarship from the American Civil Liberties Union, said it is ironic and sad that the district held this forum now. He said before he brought the case to any court he had asked the district to let the ACLU hold a one-hour forum to educate them on their rights as students.

"The school has refused it from stage one, so they fought it for seven years," he said. "Seven years later they settled for our original offer, an assembly on student rights, but now they've had to waste tax dollars over the years."

In addition to hosting the forum, the school district also paid Frederick $45,000 as part of the settlement agreement.

Although forever changed by the monumental case, Frederick said he is not consumed by it. He said he plans to go on to study linguistics.

"Any chance I have I will continue to support student rights if a case arises, but I'm not planning on focusing my life around it or anything," he said. "But I'll always be an advocate for it."

Jay said the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" saga has been more than a just a case with an infamous catch phrase.

"At the end of the day Mr. Frederick is a rather famous man on the Internet and you could certainly argue that in some extent freedom of speech for students has gained a little bit," he said.

• Contact reporter Eric Morrison at 523-2269 or

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