School Board, Frederick reach settlement in 'Bong Hits' case

Agreement includes a $45,000 payment to former student

Posted: Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Officials say the final chapter of the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" saga has been written with a settlement being reached between the Juneau Board of Education and former Juneau-Douglas High School student Joseph Frederick.

After nearly seven years of litigation that landed the case in the nation's highest court, the Juneau School Board reached a settlement agreement Monday night that includes a $45,000 payment to Frederick. Former JDHS Principal Deb Morse suspended Frederick in 2002 during the Olympic Torch Relay for holding up a banner across from the high school that read "Bong Hits 4 Jesus."

"We're really happy to have this one resolved," School Board President Mark Choate said. "Every case involves different opinions, but we're pleased to have it resolved so we can focus more on the important work the board has to do to improve schools in Juneau."

Choate said the school district's insurer will pay Frederick the settlement and that no funds will be diverted from educational programs.

Choate said the settlement also had other non-monetary stipulations, including Frederick dismissing his remaining claims that were not decided by the U.S. Supreme Court during its Morse v. Frederick ruling in 2007. That includes Frederick dropping his legal claim that his speech rights under the Alaska Constitution were violated. In September, the issue was argued in front of the Court of Appeals but the settlement came before the judges reached a decision.

Douglas Mertz, Frederick's lawyer, said this settlement closes the final chapter in the case as far as his client is concerned.

"It's time I think to close the chapter on what happened to Joe and leave these other things to be resolved in the future," he said.

The settlement also requires the district to spend up to $5,000 to hire a neutral constitutional law expert to chair a forum on student speech at JDHS before the end of the school year.

The district also will continue to enforce its policies prohibiting students from displaying materials that district personnel reasonably view as advocating or celebrating illegal drug use as permitted by the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court, Choate said.

He said he feels this is a fair settlement.

"The settlement in the case will avoid further litigation expenses, but more importantly will allow all parties to put a long-running, divisive issue behind them and move forward with a better understating of the speech rights of students in the Juneau School District," Choate said.

Mertz said he believes the community has learned some things over the lifetime of the case. More education in civics and First Amendment issues should be taught in schools, he said.

"I think we've also come to realize through this that a great deal still needs to be done, both in Juneau and nationwide, in civics."

Mertz said the saddest part of the saga was what he believed was the unfair campaign of retaliation the school district launched against Frederick and his family.

"Joe stood up for his rights and has been vindicated," he said.

• Contact reporter Eric Morrisonat 523-2269 or e-mail

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