Court OKs 10-day suspension for holding up 'bong hits' poster

ALASKA — If a federal district court decision stands on appeal, public high schools on the West Coast would be given greater license to punish students for expressing their views about illicit drugs.

In his May 27 ruling, U.S. District Judge John W. Sedwick said Juneau School District officials had a right to suspend a student under the school’s anti-drug policy after he displayed a banner that read ”Bong Hits 4 Jesus.” Joseph Frederick, then a senior at Juneau-Douglas High School, held up the sign during the Olympic torch relay as it passed through the town in January 2002 leading up to that summer’s games.

Principal Deborah Morse issued Frederick a 5-day suspension, which she doubled when he refused to name the other students who held up the banner. Frederick said the punishment was increased after he recited the First Amendment.

He contended in his lawsuit that the school could not punish him because he watched the relay from a public sidewalk, not on school grounds. Students were excused from school to watch the relay.

The court said, however, that Principal Deborah Morse had wider discretion to control Frederick’s actions because the event occurred during school hours at a time when parents expected their children to be under school supervision.

The court cited Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser, in which the Supreme Court ruled schools could punish students for using sexually suggestive language during school-sponsored events.

”Morse had the authority, if not the obligation, to stop such messages at a school-sanctioned activity so as not to place the imprimatur of school approval on the message,” the court said.

The district court rejected Frederick’s argument that his speech was protected under the 1969 Supreme Court decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. In that case, the Court said that high school students are allowed to express themselves freely unless their actions cause a ”material and substantial disruption” of normal school operations.

The district court said Tinker did not apply because ”Frederick’s expression directly conflicted with the school’s deterrence of illegal drug use.”

The Alaska Civil Liberties Union is filing an appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on Frederick’s behalf. Jennifer Rudinger, the group’s executive director, said regardless of whether the relay was considered a school event, Frederick should have been able to say what he wanted.

”It is extremely dangerous for an anti-drug policy to go beyond the use or possession of actual drugs to begin allowing schools to censor a point of view about drugs,” she said.

The district court ruled that the Juneau School Board and Morse, the two defendants in the case, did not violate Frederick’s rights under the Constitution and Alaska law and were immune from paying damages. The court also did not order Frederick’s suspension expunged as he requested.

Frederick v. Morse, No. 02-008 (D. Alaska May 27, 2003).