Alaska student suspended for off-campus “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” banner goes to court

The Alaska Civil Liberties Union filed suit against a Juneau school board and principal in federal court on April 25 for violating a student’s free-speech rights after he displayed a banner off school property that read, “Bong Hits 4 Jesus.”

Principal Deborah Morse of Juneau-Douglas High School suspended senior Joseph Frederick for 10 days after she saw him hold up the banner during the city’s Olympic torch rally last January. Morse invoked the school’s anti-drug policy as cause for the suspension.

Many students had been excused from school for the event and Frederick was on a public sidewalk when he and several others displayed the banner.

Morse grabbed the banner from Frederick and asked him to report to her office upon his arrival at school, where she doubled his five-day suspension when he quoted a Thomas Jefferson statement about free speech, according to the lawsuit.

The banner’s message was a slang expression among snowboarders that was “intended to be silly, but provocative-silly,” said Jennifer Rudinger, the civil liberties union’s executive director.

Frederick’s appeals to Superintendent Gary Bader and the school board were rejected.

The lawsuit seeks a declaration that the school violated Frederick’s constitutional rights, an injunction against the school board to prevent it from violating other students’ free-expression rights in the future, removal of the suspension from Frederick’s record and any damages the court sees fit to award.

SPLC View: Yet more confused administrators convinced that they have the right to control or punish students 24-7 for private expressive activity that takes place outside school. If it’s determined that attending the rally was not a school-related activity and he or she follows existing law, this should be a fairly easy call for the judge in the case as courts have generally found that school officials may not punish students for engaging in otherwise protected off-campus, private speech.