After seven years of litigation, and 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.
In 2002, when the Olympic torch was making its way across Alaska, Joseph Frederick, a then 18-year-old high school, displayed a banner across the street from the high school. The banner read, “Bong Hits 4 Jesus,” a phrase intended to be humorous and nonsensical. High school principal Deborah Morse lacked a sense of humor, confiscated the banner and suspended Frederick from school.
Frederick then sued Morse and the school board in federal court for violating his free speech rights. The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska helped with his defense, but 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, also apparently lacking a sense of humor, 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 the argument that 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.