Student in Supreme Court Free Speech Case Speaks About Suspension Over "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" Banner

Affiliate: ACLU of Alaska
March 2, 2007 12:00 am

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Conservative Religious Organizations Join Advocates on Drug Policy, Free Speech and Gay Rights in Support of Student

NEW YORK – In a teleconference with reporters today, 23-year-old Joseph Frederick spoke publicly for the first time in more than a year about his challenge to a 2002 high school suspension for displaying a sign saying “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” at an off-campus event not sponsored by the school.

The issue before the United States Supreme Court in Morse v. Frederick (06-278) is whether a school can censor student speech because it disagrees with its message, and whether it can punish off-campus speech that does not disrupt the educational process.

“This is one of the most important student free speech cases to come before the Supreme Court in many years,” said Frederick’s attorney, Douglas K. Mertz, who will be arguing the case for the American Civil Liberties Union later this month. “For decades the law has been that students have the constitutional right to free speech even on school campuses. In this case the school district seeks to overrule decades of solid sensible law and to extend its reach to punish student speech that doesn’t even take place on the school campus.”

“This is not a case about drugs or drug policy,” he added. “This case is about freedom of speech and teaching our young people the importance of free speech.”

The Court will hear the case on Monday, March 19. Frederick, who is currently in China taking college courses and teaching English to high school students, spoke with reporters by telephone.

“I conducted my free speech experiment in order to assert my rights at a time when I felt that free speech was being eroded in America,” Frederick said. “The high school I attended advocated that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights did not apply to students. I was skeptical of my own free speech rights and I wanted to know more precisely the boundaries of my freedom. I guess we’ll get to find that out soon.”

The case arose in 2002 when Frederick, a student at Juneau-Douglas High School in Juneau, Alaska, was suspended for 10 days for holding up a humorous sign that the principal interpreted as a pro-drug message. As the ACLU and Mertz noted in legal papers, the sign caused no disruption, was displayed at the Olympic Torch Relay – a public event on the public streets – and Frederick had not yet arrived at school for the day.

A lower court upheld the suspension but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned it in March 2006, saying that speech, even if contrary to school policy, cannot be restricted unless the speech disrupts school activities. The court also ruled that to limit such speech was a violation of Frederick’s constitutional rights.

Frederick said that the phrase Bong Hits 4 Jesus “was never meant to have any substantive meaning. It was certainly not intended as a drug or religious message. I conveyed this to the principal by explaining it was intended to be funny, subjectively interpreted by the reader and most importantly an exercise of my inalienable right to free speech.”

The case has attracted support from more than a dozen groups across the ideological spectrum, from the conservative American Center for Law and Justice, Christian Legal Society and Rutherford Institute to the Student Press Law Center, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, Drug Policy Alliance and National Coalition Against Censorship. Their friend-of-the-court briefs, as well the ACLU’s legal papers, a photograph of Joseph Frederick and an image of the rally, are available on the ACLU website,

Frederick is represented by Mertz, Steven R. Shapiro, ACLU National Legal Director, Catherine Crump and Jonathan Miller, of the national ACLU and Jason Brandeis, Legal Director of the ACLU of Alaska.

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