Court rules school had right to punish Alaska youth for holding up ‘bong hits’ sign

ALASKA — A federal judge ruled last month that highschool students can be punished if they express their views about drugs in aschool-sponsored activity. In a May 27 ruling, the court said thefree-speech rights of a high school student were not violated when he wassuspended for holding up a banner during an Olympic torch relay that read “BongHits 4 Jesus.” Joseph Frederick, then a senior at Juneau-Douglas HighSchool, was handed a 10-day suspension for violating the school’s anti-drugpolicy and for refusing to identify other students who held up the banner duringthe relay on Jan. 24, 2002. Students were excused from school to watch theOlympic torch pass through the town. Moments after Frederick displayed thebanner, Principal Deborah Morse grabbed it from him and told him to report toher office. U.S. District Judge John W. Sedwick said Frederick could bepunished because the relay was considered a school-sponsored event. In hislawsuit filed by the Alaska Civil Liberties Union last year, Frederick claimedthe school’s actions were prohibited under federal and Alaska constitutionsbecause he watched the relay from a public sidewalk, not on school grounds.The court said, however, the school had wider discretion to controlFrederick’s actions because the event occurred during school hours at a timewhen parents expected their children to be under school supervision. The courtcited Bethel School District v. Fraser, in which the Supreme Court ruledschools could punish students for expressing lewd and indecent language duringschool-sponsored events.”Having determined that speech advocatingillegal drug use is inappropriate in the school, Morse had the authority, if notthe obligation, to stop such messages at a school-sanctioned activity so as notto place the imprimatur of school approval on the message,” the courtsaid.The court ruling will be appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals ofNinth Circuit, said Jennifer Rudinger, executive director of the Alaska ACLU.She said regardless of whether the relay was considered a school event,Frederick should have been able to say what he wanted.”It is extremelydangerous for an anti-drug policy to go beyond the use or possession of actualdrugs to begin allowing schools to censor a point of view aboutdrugs.”Frederick was asking the court to declare that the Juneau SchoolBoard and Morse, the two defendants in the case, violated his free-expressionrights and to stop them from violating other students’ rights in the future. Healso wanted his suspension expunged and for any damages that the court saw fitto award. The school board rejected Frederick’s appeal, butthen-Superintendent Gary Bader later shortened his suspension to eightdays.The court ruled the school board and Morse were immune from payingdamages for any alleged violation of Frederick’s rights under the Constitutionand Alaska law. The lawsuit never went to trial. The court provided apreliminary order in the case based on written arguments at the request ofFrederick and the school officials. Afterward, the parties withdrew theirrequests for oral arguments, making the order permanent pending the appeal tothe Ninth Circuit.

Frederick v. Morse, Juneau School Board, J 02-008 CV (JWS) (filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska on May 27, 2003)
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  • Alaska student suspended for off-campus “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” banner goes to court