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Alaska Civil Liberties Union sues Juneau school board over free speech

Posted: Friday, April 26, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The Alaska Civil Liberties Union is suing the Juneau School Board, saying the district violated the free-speech rights of a high school student who waved a banner that read ''Bong Hits 4 Jesus'' during the Olympic torch run.

Joseph Frederick, 18, a senior at Juneau Douglas the school, stood across the street from the school while holding the banner Jan. 24. Some teachers had released students from class to watch the torch run.

Frederick arrived just before the historic flame, parking off school grounds and never stepping on school property, said Doug Mertz, Frederick's attorney.

Principal Deborah Morse walked across the street and grabbed the sign. She ultimately suspended him for a total of 10 days. District officials said his banner violated school anti-drug policies. But the Alaska Civil Liberties Union said the school violated Frederick's rights to free speech and on Thursday sued the Juneau School Board.

''Joseph couldn't care less if people do bong hits or believe in Jesus or don't believe in Jesus,'' said Jennifer Rudinger, AkCLU executive director. ''He wanted to make a statement about making a statement.''

When Frederick protested his suspension he quoted Thomas Jefferson.

''I think it was a quote from Jefferson that originated with Voltaire that means I may disagree with you, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it,' '' Mertz said.

After that, Morse added five additional days to Frederick's five-day suspension.

''If quoting the founding fathers and asserting your free speech rights against government censorship means they're going to suspend you worse -- I think Thomas Jefferson would turn over in his grave,'' Rudinger said.

The AkCLU said Frederick didn't break any rules. He was off-campus and drug-free. He appealed the suspension immediately and won a partial victory in February when the district waived the final two days of Frederick's suspension.

''But we also wanted that suspension taken off his permanent record because he's trying to get into some pretty good schools,'' Rudinger said.

Mertz and Rudinger describe Frederick as a bright and intriguing student.

''And he has an admirable -- what would you call it?'' Mertz paused. ''A streak of not automatically accepting what other people say.''



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