Juneau School Board seeking money for defense in 'Bong Hits' lawsuit

Posted: Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Juneau School Board is requesting money to defend its position in the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" legal case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

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The School Board approved a resolution at its regular meeting Tuesday night to request money from the Alaska Association of School Board's Legal Assistance Fund in the appeal of the Frederick v. Morse case to the nation's highest court.

The Supreme Court has not yet decided whether it will take the case.

The controversial free-speech case came about after the confiscation of a drug-themed banner at the Winter Olympic torch relay in January 2002. Former Juneau-Douglas High School student Joseph Frederick was suspended for 10 days for displaying the banner.

The lawsuit was filed against the Juneau School Board and former Juneau-Douglas High School Principal Deborah Morse.

Frederick sued the Juneau School District, which initially won in federal court ruled. But an appellate court later reversed the decision because Frederick displayed his sign at an event off school grounds, where the court said he was protected under the First Amendment.

The board voted 6-1 Tuesday in favor of seeking extra funds from the Alaska Association of School Board's Legal Assistance Fund if there are extra legal fees not covered by the district's insurance and the pro bono work offered by California attorney Kenneth Starr. Starr was the independent counsel who investigated former President Clinton in the Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky scandals and whose findings led to Clinton's impeachment.

School Board member Margo Waring, the only member to oppose seeking funds from the state association, said the board and the district have misled the public to believe that the district would not be required to pay money to appeal the case to the Supreme Court. The Juneau School District contributes funds to the association.

"I happen to believe in transparency in government and budgeting," Waring said.

She said the district should not use its money to limit the rights of its students.

"I want to say that I support the constitutionality free speech of students," Waring said. "I don't believe in spending money to try to change constitutional guarantees."

Two members of the public spoke against to seeking extra money to continue fighting the suit.

"I just feel like, in some ways, I feel duped," Laurie Berg said. "I don't understand why the spin was there would be no extra money involved."

Berg said there are a lot of poor districts in the state that might possibly need money from the association's Legal Assistance Fund more than the Juneau School District.

"I don't support it, and I don't support the spin that the district put on the appeal and its cost," she said.

Superintendent Peggy Cowan said the district has been in contact with the association and has received verbal support from it to pursue the appeal. She said the association suggested the School Board adopt a resolution seeking financial assistance.

Cowan said there is a limit to how much the district could get from the group.

"The amount that is available to us is up to a half of what we expend or $15,000," she said. "We don't have any bill at this point to present to them."

• Eric Morrison can be reached at eric.morrison@juneauempire.com.

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