ACLU Files Lawsuit Challenging Alaska School District's Censorship of Student's Off-Campus Speech

Affiliate: ACLU of Alaska
April 25, 2002 12:00 am

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JUNEAU, AK–The Alaska Civil Liberties Union today filed a lawsuit in federal district court against a high school principal and the Juneau School Board for violating the free speech rights of a student after he displayed a banner off school property saying, “Bong Hits 4 Jesus.” The student was suspended for 10 days.

AkCLU cooperating attorney Doug Mertz represented Joseph Frederick, 18, in appealing his suspension, first to Superintendent Gary Bader and then to the Juneau School Board. When both appeals were unsuccessful, the AkCLU announced earlier this month that it would take this case to court to vindicate Frederick’s constitutional rights to free speech.

“”This case is important because we need to make clear to school officials that students have a right to peacefully protest against school policies or actions that they perceive as unfair or unreasonable,”” said Mertz. “”Joseph was not disrupting any educational activity, he was not violating anyone’s rights, and he was not even on school property.””

The AkCLU complaint alleges that the actions taken by the school to suspend Frederick amounts to a violation of his rights to free speech, as guaranteed in the Alaska Constitution and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The lawsuit further contends that because the school board denied Frederick’s appeal, his right to receive an education had been violated, a right that is guaranteed in the Alaska Constitution.

The incident arose on January 24, 2002, when teachers at Juneau Douglas High School allowed students to leave the school during morning classes to watch the Olympic Torch Relay pass along a street that runs between the school and a residential neighborhood. Some students stayed on campus, some left campus to go to nearby eateries, some engaged in horseplay, and some wandered across the street to watch the torch go by from a different vantage point.

Frederick, a high school senior, arrived just prior to the relay and parked his car along a public street. He had not yet entered school property that day, nor was he among the students throwing things and engaging in horseplay. As the relay approached, Joseph and a number of other persons standing on the public sidewalk silently displayed a banner that read “Bong Hits 4 Jesus.”

Principal Deborah Morse saw the banner, crossed the street, and demanded that Frederick and the others relinquish the banner. When Frederick asserted his Constitutional right to free speech, Morse seized the banner from his hands, at which point the others dropped it and fled the scene. Morse told Joseph to come to her office, where she suspended him for five days. When Frederick quoted Thomas Jefferson in protest, again asserting his right to free speech, Morse suspended him for an additional five days.

Jennifer Rudinger, Executive Director of the AkCLU, said the school’s assertion that Frederick’s banner violated the school’s anti-drug policy is absurd.

“Joseph was not suspended for using drugs or possessing drugs, but merely for talking about drugs — and that is a clear violation of his free speech rights,” she said. “Schools can promote an anti-drug policy and prevent students from using drugs, but students have a right to disagree with school policy and to express their contrary point of view in a peaceful manner.”

The lawsuit seeks a declaration that Joseph’s constitutional rights have been violated, an injunction against the school preventing them from violating the rights of students in similar situations in the future, removal of any record of this suspension from Joseph’s permanent record, and any damages that the Court sees fit to award in this case.

The legal complaint is online at:

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