School Board stands by plans to appeal

Public objects as district continues legal battle over 'Bong Hits' banner

Posted: Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The Juneau School Board took a brief but potent hit of public comment Tuesday afternoon from parents and voters angry about the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" case.

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The School Board held a special meeting at noon with about 10 minutes of public comment prior to an executive session, after acknowledging it had not notified the public of a similar meeting a week earlier. Tuesday's meeting discussed the board's decision to appeal a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court regarding the suspension of then-Juneau-Douglas High School student Joseph Frederick for displaying the "Bong Hits" banner while at an off-campus school event in 2002.

A bong is a device used for smoking marijuana, and school administrators punished Frederick for displaying a drug-themed message. The appeals court said that punishment for an action outside of school during an Olympic Torch rally violated constitutional speech protections.

"The reason I came out today is because the School Board's refusal to acknowledge that students have free speech rights is disgraceful," said Paul Grant, a Juneau lawyer.

Grant was one of six speakers to address the School Board in the cramped confines of the Juneau School District's central office conference room. Four speakers asked the board to reconsider its attempt to bring the case to the nation's highest court. Two speakers encouraged the board to pursue a Supreme Court hearing to clarify administrators' rights.

Carl Rose, executive director of the Association of Alaska School Boards, said the issue has become clouded as a First Amendment issue, when he feels it is really a question of administrators' rights.

"My comments were that the issue right now before us is, what authority does the School Board have and what responsibility does a principal have to interpret the law?"

Rose said the ruling in Frederick's favor has left administrators across the country on a slippery slope. He said administrators could be subject to termination for not enforcing district policy, or if they do enforce policy, they could be sued.

"It is unclear now what the authority of a principal is in the eyes of the courts," he said.

Grant said he went to the meeting to speak because he thought the School Board's message was disingenuous and politically motivated, and that the board needed to be called out on the matter.

"Where the district goes wrong is thinking that they can suppress or punish speech and that it won't take place," he said.

"Aside from being anti-American and anti-First Amendment, it's not effective," he said. "If they want an effective anti-drug message, then they need to have an effective anti-drug message."

Leslie Longenbaugh, a parent of two high school students, questioned the School Board's decision to accept the free services of prominent lawyer Kenneth Starr, who is widely known as the independent counsel who investigated former President Clinton.

"My concern is that our School Board, it appears to me, did not look hard enough at Ken Starr and his assistance for them," she said. "Is he a lawyer that they would go out and hire? Then why hire him? Just because he'll work for free doesn't mean they haven't hired him and linked their name with him."

Longenbaugh, a lawyer who formerly represented the Juneau Empire, presented a letter to the School Board at the meeting that cited associations with groups that she said are questionable. She said one association that "contrasts with the School Board's claimed concern about 'bong hits'" is Starr's alleged work for the wine industry and his opposition of groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving attempting to limit the ability of minors to purchase alcohol over the Internet.

A statement by School Board President Phyllis Carlson was released after the executive session saying the board is continuing to pursue the matter with the assistance of Starr and the law firm of Kirkland Ellis.

"The board believes it is important to take this action because we need clarification on when our administrators are at risk of liability for damages for enforcing our policies and the circumstances in which we can enforce our policies restricting pro-drug messages," Carlson's statement said.

Grant said the district hasn't learned its lesson in the four years since the incident.

"The solution to speech that you don't like is not to punish it," he said. "The solution is to have a better message, and that's the lesson these people need to learn."

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