The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska named Juneau attorney Doug Mertz Civil Libertarian of the Year on Saturday.
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The ACLU honored Mertz on Saturday at its Liberty Awards dinner in Anchorage for his work defending the First Amendment in the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" case, said Sharon Leganza, executive director of ACLU Alaska.
"It was an easy choice. He has a distinguished record in civil liberties," said Jennifer Smerud, ACLU development director.
Last spring the legal case involving former Juneau-Douglas High School student Joseph Frederick captured national attention and was described as the most important free speech battle since the 1969 Tinker decision, which set a legal precedent for a generation.
Frederick sued the Juneau School District after it suspended him for holding up the "Bong Hits" banner at an off-campus, school-sanctioned event. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Frederick in June, saying that schools have the right to prohibit speech that can be interpreted as advocating drug use.
School district officials could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
From the beginning, Mertz led Frederick's pursuit of the right to speak without interference by the government, Jason Brandeis, ACLU co-counsel, said. At the district level, Mertz worked alone on the case.
Brandeis worked with Mertz in subsequent federal courts.
"He did a good job with the oral arguments before the Supreme Court," he said.
For nearly six years, Mertz spent up to one-third of his time on the case, pro bono. The award also recognizes time spent not working on his private practice, Leganza said.
"The most gratifying part of the whole process is the enormous support I've received from Alaskans of all political persuasions," Mertz said.
An ACLU board member nominated Mertz for the award.
Mertz said he was happy to do the work on the Frederick case.
"The civil rights aspect of the case is so important," he said. "Civil liberties, the First Amendment in particular, are so basic to America's understanding of government."
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