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Banner suit filed in court

Student presses free-speech lawsuit with help of AkCLU

Posted: Friday, April 26, 2002

A lawsuit filed in federal court on Thursday claims the state and federal constitutional rights of Juneau-Douglas High School senior Joseph Frederick were violated when he was suspended for carrying a banner reading "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" in January.

Frederick, with the support of the Alaska Civil Liberties Union, filed the suit roughly three weeks after announcing his intent to pursue legal action. The suit names JDHS Principal Deb Morse and the Juneau School Board as defendants.

"We really hoped that it wouldn't come to this," AkCLU Executive Director Jennifer Rudinger said this morning. "We kept hoping that somewhere common sense would prevail. ... We're a little bit surprised we have to go to court but there's nowhere else left to appeal."

Frederick was suspended by Morse for 10 days after displaying the banner during the Olympic Torch Relay on Jan. 24. He appealed, and Superintendent Gary Bader upheld the suspension - but reduced it to the eight days served - in February.

Frederick appealed to the school board in March, which voted to uphold the suspension on the grounds cited by Bader, including that watching the torch run was a school-sanctioned activity; that the term "bong hits" went against the district's anti-drug policy; and that Frederick defied the directives of school officials after being told to take the banner down.

The complaint filed Thursday asks for a declaration that Frederick's state and federal constitutional rights were violated; injunctions expunging the suspension from Frederick's record and banning any future similar suspensions; awarding of attorney fees; and compensatory and punitive damages.

Frederick's attorney, Doug Mertz, did not elaborate on the amounts, but said "the main point (of the lawsuit) is the principle, the policy."

The AkCLU is paying Frederick's legal fees.

Mertz said they chose to name Morse and the school board as defendants because "Deb Morse made the decision (to punish Frederick) and the school board set the policy" under which he was punished.

School Board President Mary Becker said this morning the panel unanimously stood by Bader's findings in March, and that it would have been "dangerous" for the district to not support the jurisdiction of school officials over school-sanctioned events.

Andrew Krueger can be reached at akrueger@juneauempire.com.



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