WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court on Friday stepped into a Juneau dispute about free speech involving a suspended high school student and his banner that proclaimed "Bong Hits 4 Jesus."
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The justices agreed to hear the appeal by the Juneau School Board and then-principal Deborah Morse of a lower court ruling that allowed the student's civil rights lawsuit to proceed. The School Board hired former Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr to argue its case to the high court.
The Juneau School District welcomed the action, said Superintendent Peggy Cowan.
Morse suspended Joe Frederick after he displayed the banner, with its reference to marijuana use, when the Olympic torch passed through Juneau in 2002 on its way to the Winter Games in Salt Lake City.
Frederick, then a senior, was off school property when he hoisted the banner but was suspended for violating the school's policy of promoting illegal substances at a school-sanctioned event.
The School Board upheld the suspension, and a federal judge initially dismissed Frederick's lawsuit. The 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals said the banner was vague and nonsensical and Frederick's civil rights had been violated.
At that point, the School Board retained Starr, who investigated President Clinton's relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. He took the case free of charge.
"We are gratified that the highest court in the land recognizes the very difficult position in which the Ninth Circuit's Frederick ruling has placed school boards and school administrators throughout the country," Cowan said in a prepared statement.
"We are hopeful that a decision from the Supreme Court will remove the cloud of uncertainty and confusion that currently hangs over our ability to maintain a consistent message to our students that use of drugs and alcohol is harmful and illegal," she said.
The appeals court said that even if the banner could be construed as a positive message about marijuana use, the school could not punish or censor a student's speech just because it promotes a social message contrary to one the school favors.
Frederick said his motivation for unfurling the banner, at least 14 feet long, was simple: He wanted it seen on television since the torch relay event was being covered by local stations. When Morse saw it, she crossed the street from the school, grabbed the banner and crumpled it. She later suspended Frederick for 10 days.
Morse still works for the Juneau school system but is no longer the high school principal. Frederick is a student at the University of Idaho.
The court is expected to hear arguments in the case in late February. In addition to the First Amendment issue, the court also will consider whether Morse can be held personally liable for monetary damages.
The appeals panel said she could be held liable because she admitted to being aware of the pertinent case law regarding student rights. The court said the law was clear and Morse was aware of it when she punished Frederick.
The National School Boards Association, American Association of School Administrators, DARE America and other drug prevention groups filed legal briefs with the Supreme Court in support of the district's case.
The case is Juneau School Board v. Frederick, 06-278.
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