'Bong Hits for Jesus' case goes to appeal
Federal court ruled student's parade banner could be censored at outside-school event
ALASKA — Called a patriot at heart, Joseph Frederick has participated in his fair share of youthful civil disobedience.
He once refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance in school, hoping his defiance would illuminate the hypocrisy of a free country mandating loyalty from students. Still, he did not get in trouble.
But when he held a sign reading "Bong Hits For Jesus" at a Juneau parade in 2002, he really only wanted to ruffle some feathers, said Doug Mertz, Frederick’s attorney.
Instead, the nonsensical phrase landed him a five-day suspension from school and another five days for invoking free speech rights and quoting Thomas Jefferson to school officials about the suspension.
The Juneau-Douglas High School senior thought that was wrong, Mertz said.
"It was a matter of public discourse on a matter of public interest," Mertz said of the sign, which Frederick held during a running of the Olympic torch through Juneau.
School officials at the parade saw the banner and approached Frederick, directing him to take the banner down. Principal Deborah Morse said the banner violated the school’s zero-tolerance drug policy.
Frederick has filed suit against the school for violating his First Amendment rights. In 2003, a federal district court ruled in favor of the school after determining the parade was a school-sponsored event.
Frederick appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and a ruling is expected soon, Mertz said.
Mertz said the case should be cut and dry because the event was neither mandatory for students nor held on school grounds. Frederick had not yet been on school grounds that day when he showed up for the parade, Mertz said.
Generally, the courts have rejected school officials’ efforts to punish students for expression they engage in outside of school or school-sponsored activities.
"I think the cases are overwhelmingly in our favor," he said. Alaska Civil Liberties Union staff attorney Jason Brandeis agrees.
Frederick’s case is unique, he said, because the phrase on his sign was illogical and therefore cannot be interpreted as offensive.
Courts have ruled that school officials can legally restrict speech found materially disruptive to the educational process when it occurs at school.
Brandeis also said the banner was not inappropriate because it merely mentioned drugs. Campus speech about drugs that does not advocate drug use cannot be censored, he said, and Frederick’s sign in no way encouraged illegal activity.
"The school can’t say, ‘Because of the drug policy you can’t talk about drugs in school,’" he said. "[The school has] a pretty weak argument."
The principal, Deborah Morse, could not be reached for comment.
Frederick, who has since graduated from high school, went to college for two years before joining the Marines this summer. He is waiting to be sent to basic training.
"He is a patriot," Mertz said. "And he believes in the country and the Constitution."
Read previous coverage:
Alaska, Juneau-Douglas High School, reports, Winter 2004-05