WASHINGTON — After seven years of litigation, and in spite of a U.S. Supreme Court victory for the school district, the “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” case has been settled for payment of $45,000 to the former student who raised the infamous banner.
In 2002, Joseph Frederick, a then 18-year-old senior at Juneau Douglas High School in Alaska, displayed a banner across the street from the school campus during the running of the Olympic torch relay. The banner read, “Bong Hits 4 Jesus,” a phrase Frederick said was intended to be humorous and nonsensical. High school principal Deborah Morse confiscated the banner and suspended Frederick from school.
Frederick sued Morse and the school board in federal court for violating his free speech rights. He was represented by Juneau attorney Douglas Mertz, in cooperation with the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska. After Frederick lost in the trial court and then won in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the school board took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that the school could restrict student speech that encourages the use of illegal drugs.
But earlier this year, the case returned to the 9th Circuit on Frederick’s claim that he was entitled to a ruling on whether the Alaska Constitution provides stronger protections for free speech than does the U.S. Constitution. With a decision pending, the parties settled the case.
Under the settlement agreement, the Juneau School Board will hold a forum on student civil liberties for all students and staff, and Frederick will be paid $45,000, of which $25,000 will come from the city and borough of Juneau and the rest from the school district’s insurer, according to the ACLU. The school district will expunge all mention of the punishment from Frederick’s official school records.