District hazy on rights

Students consider former suspended student a hero

Posted: Sunday, May 07, 2006

Although Joseph Frederick no longer resides in Juneau, the infamy for displaying a controversial banner in the capital city lives on.

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Frederick was suspended from Juneau-Douglas High School in January of 2002 for unfurling a sign during the Winter Olympic torch relay that read, "Bong Hits 4 Jesus." The senior was off school grounds, but the school allowed students to attend the event under supervision of school officials. The suspension led to Frederick suing then-Principal Deb Morse and the School Board.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled in April that the School Board and Morse had violated Frederick's First Amendment rights. The School Board announced Tuesday that it has enlisted the services of lawyer Kenneth Starr free of charge and will attempt to bring the case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Starr, the dean of the Pepperdine University School of Law, was the independent counsel who led the investigation that resulted in the impeachment of President Clinton. The university's spokeswoman, Lyric Hassler, said Starr has yet to make a public statement on the case and could not comment Friday because of travel obligations.

The latest development has raised Frederick to near folk hero status among youth, according to some parents and students. Standing up to authority and emerging from the latest battle victorious has drawn the attention of some.

"Something like that is something that all students wish they could do but don't actually have the guts to do it," said Lesley Kalbrener, an editor for the JDHS student newspaper, The Ego. "It actually kind of makes him a hero."

Frederick could not be reached for comment.

Vince Wagner, junior class co-president, said students are still pushing the limits of the school's dress code and language barriers.

"Teenagers are very fond of pushing the limits," he said. "You can see a lot of examples of where the line of freedom of speech falls within the school."

School Board President Phyllis Carlson said the district is hoping to take the battle to the nation's highest court in order to clarify where the line in the sand is drawn on students' rights to free speech in schools.

"As a board member, our focus is not what happened in the past, but what rights does the district and the administrators, particularly administrators, have when they need to make split second decisions," she said.

Carlson said it is the district's responsibility to enforce a safe and drug-free learning environment.

"We receive federal monies and it requires us to promote healthy lifestyles," she said. "A lot of our message in education is to promote healthy lifestyles, and particularly on campus activities."

Kathi Collum, a co-founder of Parents Unite, a parent advocacy group that works to curb underage drinking and drug use, said she worries that the School Board's decision to pursue the case further may send the opposite message to children.

"I do think that, given the fact that they essentially made him out to be a hero in the eyes of the kids because he stood up to the administration, and it sent a message to the kids that his message on his banner was acceptable," she said.

Collum said there is a gray area when it comes to students' right to free speech.

"Certainly from a moral perspective I understand and support the district, but from a legal perspective I think Mr. Frederick was in the right," she said.

Whether or not the Supreme Court will hear the case is unknown. Kathleen Arberg, public information officer for the U.S. Supreme Court, said only a small fraction of cases filed are heard by the justices.

"There are approximately 8,000 cases filed with the court each term, and approximately 75 or 80 are granted to be heard by the court," she said.

Arberg said that if the case is accepted, the earliest arguments would be brought before the justices would be during the next term, which will begin in October.

Carlson said she trusts Starr's judgment that this case can proceed.

"He has a lot of experience in front of the Supreme Court, so he would know what case has merit," she said.

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