JUNEAU (AP) -- A lawsuit filed by a former Juneau high school student
raises questions about what constitutes protected speech and what
determines a school event.

Joseph Frederick was suspended as a senior at Juneau-Douglas High School
last year after he and other people displayed a banner stating "Bong hits 4
Jesus." The banner was displayed on a sidewalk across from the school
during the passing of the Olympic Torch Relay in late January 2002.

School Principal Deb Morse seized the banner and suspended Frederick for 10
days, citing inappropriate and defiant behavior, among other reasons. The
Juneau School Board later upheld the suspension but reduced its length.

Since then, Frederick sued the School Board and Morse and the issue became
a federal case about free speech.

The Alaska Civil Liberties Union has provided financial and legal
assistance, said Frederick's attorney, Douglas Mertz of Juneau.

Frederick wants an injunction to keep Juneau schools from taking similar
actions in the future, removal of the suspension from his school records
and unspecified monetary damages, Mertz said.

Both sides have filed briefs calling on the U.S. District Court in Alaska
to find in their favor without holding a trial.

The school denied Frederick his right to free speech under the state and
U.S. constitutions, Mertz argued in court documents.

Frederick said the phrase was intended as humor and an exercise of free
speech and was not intended to advocate any message about drugs or
religion. The phrase is used on a brand of snowboard, he said.

"We thought we had a free-speech right to display a humorous saying,"
Frederick said in an affidavit filed in court papers. "The content of the
banner was less important to us than the fact that we were exercising our
free-speech rights to do a funny parody."

The School District considered "bong hits" a reference to inhaling
marijuana through a pipe and said the banner could be construed as
advocating illegal drug use.

Courts have said a school can't restrict speech based on its content,
except for vulgar or obscene language at school-sponsored events, Mertz
argued. A student's freedom of speech is even less limited off campus, he said.

Among the issues is whether Frederick and other students were attending a
school function when they watched the relay. Mertz said the high school had
allowed but not required students to leave class and watch the relay, the
Juneau Empire reported.

The School Board argued that the students watching the relay were under
school supervision. The school had the authority to discipline Frederick
for displaying a banner it reasonably construed as advocating the use of
illegal drugs, said David Crosby, a Juneau attorney representing the school
board and Morse.

Crosby said Frederick wasn't suspended solely for displaying the banner but
for being truant in the first class that day, refusing Morse's instructions
to put down the banner and go to her office, and refusing to explain the
banner's meaning or identifying the other students involved in the incident.

The matter is not a free-speech issue, Crosby argued, because Frederick has
said he wasn't trying to express anything in particular. Statements that
have no meaning or that can't be understood aren't protected speech, Crosby

Crosby noted the Supreme Court has found that schools can discipline
students for advocating illegal drugs even if the students don't disrupt
the school.

U.S. District Judge John Sedwick is hearing the case.

Pubdate: Tue, 15 Apr 2003
Source: Anchorage Daily News (AK)
Webpage: http://www.adn.com/alaska/story/2948138p-2982751c.html
Copyright: 2003 The Anchorage Daily News
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Website: http://www.adn.com/