'Bong Hits 4 Jesus' case finally settled

$45,000: Juneau school district will pay student it suspended.

November 6, 2008 

JUNEAU -- The seven-year Bong Hits 4 Jesus saga appears to be over.

In a free speech case that reached the nation's highest court, the Juneau-Douglas School District and former student Joseph Frederick have reached a settlement.

Frederick was suspended during a 2002 Olympic torch relay for holding up a banner that read "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" while standing across from the high school.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the school's position that Frederick celebrated the illegal use of drugs. The district will pay Frederick $45,000. In exchange Frederick will drop remaining claims not heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.

"We're really happy to have this one resolved," School Board President Mark Choate said. "Every case involves different opinions, but we're pleased to have it resolved so we can focus more on the important work the board has to do to improve schools in Juneau."

Frederick's Juneau-based attorney Douglas Mertz says the settlement essentially brings an end to the case as far as his client sees it.

"It's time I think to close the chapter on what happened to Joe and leave these other things to be resolved in the future," Mertz said.

The settlement also calls for the district to spend as much as $5,000 to hire a neutral constitutional law expert to chair a forum on student speech at JDHS. This is to be done before this school year ends next spring.

The district also will continue to enforce its policies that prohibit its students from displaying materials deemed as advocating or celebrating illegal drug use, as permitted by the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court, Choate said.

"The settlement in the case will avoid further litigation expenses, but more importantly will allow all parties to put a long-running, divisive issue behind them and move forward with a better understating of the speech rights of students in the Juneau School District," Choate said.

Mertz said he believes the community has learned from this high-profile case. He said civics and First Amendment issues should be an education priority in schools.

Mertz said the saddest part of this seven years is what he calls an unfair campaign of retaliation the school district launched against Frederick and the young man's family.

"Joe stood up for his rights and has been vindicated."

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