Where will famed 'Bong' banner go?

The Newseum in Washington, D.C., vies with local museums to acquire object

Posted: Friday, July 06, 2007

Although Juneau's Joseph Frederick lost his free-speech case before the U.S. Supreme Court, his controversial message may be preserved for future generations. The big question is which museum will display the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" banner that gained national attention.

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A prominent museum in Washington, D.C., the Newseum, is vying against two Juneau-based museums for the sign Frederick raised on Glacier Avenue in 2002 during the passing of the Olympic torch relay.

The Juneau-Douglas City Museum is interested in the banner because it represents a part of Juneau's history, said Jane Lindsay, city museum director.

"It's an interesting piece of physical evidence that put the community in a quandary," Lindsay said.

The Alaska State Museum also expressed interest in the banner, Frederick's attorney Doug Mertz said. State museum officials did not return phone calls for this article.

The banner lit the embers of a student free-speech debate that grew into a precedent-setting case before the Supreme Court. The school district won the case, with the court ruling that the principal was within her rights to suspend Frederick for the banner because it could be seen as promoting illegal drug use.

Lindsay said the city museum's curator has been collecting news clippings throughout the Frederick case, and the banner would join those artifacts for safekeeping and public access.

"We want it some place to remind people of liberty," said Mertz , who argued Frederick's case before the Supreme Court.

The Newseum, a 250,000-square-foot museum dedicated to news and its history, sits on Pennsylvania Avenue within sight of the White House and the U.S. Capitol. A 74-foot-high marble tablet bearing the First Amendment fronts the Newseum building, which contains 6,000 news-related artifacts.

"We have a very visible display," said Cathy Trost, director of Newseum exhibit development.

If the Newseum acquired Frederick's 40-foot duct-tape-and-butcher-paper banner proclaiming "Bong Hits 4 Jesus," it would hang next to Mary Beth Tinker's armband protesting the Vietnam War, Trost said.

"We think this is the kind of case where student speech and control collide," Trost said.

Both artifacts illustrate varied outcomes in school district attempts to control student speech.

In 1965 the 13-year-old Tinker was suspended, with her brother, for wearing the armband in school.

Tinker's victory before the Supreme Court set the bar for student speech rights for 38 years before Frederick's case was lost to the Supreme Court last month.

The Newseum is on Pennsylvania Avenue, described by Trost as "America's Main Street," and Trost thinks that Frederick's banner would benefit the entire nation from the museum's massive free-speech forum.

"I don't know about a permanent home," Frederick said. "But, I don't see any reason they couldn't share it."

Frederick likes the idea of the slogan on display so near the pre-eminent student-speech icon.

"It's equal to Mary Beth Tinker's armband," he said.

Juneau School District superintendent Peggy Cowan said the museum's interest shows the case was an important one. Cowan holds fast to the district's premise that Frederick's topic that day was not protected speech.

"We don't think the banner and the armband to be equal speech," she said.

No decision on the banner's placement has yet been made, but Frederick expects to discuss the options with his attorney before making a choice.

Mertz said the decision is Frederick's to make, but that he would advise him to choose a museum that would display the banner rather than lock it up.

"As long as it's preserved somewhere," Lindsay said. "History is the main thing."

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