Story last updated at 3/25/2009 - 10:57 am
JUNEAU - Last Friday, students had their rights read to them at a free speech forum at the Juneau-Douglas High School Auditorium. Students of JDHS and Thunder Mountain High School were in attendance, as well as various members of the public.
The forum was in response to the now seven-year-old case between Joseph Frederick and the Juneau School District. In 2002, Frederick was disciplined by then-principal Deborah Morse when he and a group of friends held up a banner at a school-sponsored event. The banner read "BONG HiTS 4 JESUS" and was displayed as students gathered on Glacier Ave. to view the passing of the Olympic Torch. Technically, the banner was displayed off of school property but was still visible to everyone in attendance.
"If he would have taken his banner down the street, he could have stood there all day and no one would have taken that away, and I agree with that completely," said JDHS teacher Kurt Dzinich Jr. "But to put it up in a school-sanctioned event, it had to come down."
Dzinich was working at the school in 2002 during the original incident and said he can't believe that the case went on as long as it did. Morse v. Frederick made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the display at school of banners which advocate drug use is not supported in the First Amendment.
Said Dzinich: "Irregardless of this case, do schools infringe upon students' rights? Yes. But in the next breath, are schools allowed to do so? Yes they are. Is that infringing on your rights? It is. But there is the loophole that we are allowed to do that. You're denying or withholding certain rights because of the educational atmosphere."
Friday's forum was moderated by Professor Stewart Jay of the University of Washington's School of Law. Also on stage were Doug Merz, who was Frederick's attorney during the case, and Ann Gifford, attorney for the Juneau School District. They each presented information about First Amendment rights in school and relevant highlights from the Morse v. Frederick case.
Frederick was present at the forum but chose not to address the crowd.
"I know many of the students would have liked to hear me," Frederick said. "Personally, I'm happy with Doug addressing them. He's more qualified to answer the questions."
Frederick traveled from China, where he is studying linguistics, to attend the forum. He and the Alaska Civil Liberties Union had presented the idea of holding a forum since the very beginning of the case. Frederick said it was not himself but the Juneau School District who dragged the case on over the years.
"Before this court case, (holding a forum) was the offer to settle seven years ago, and it was still the offer seven years later," Frederick said.
Dzinich said he hopes that the schools will follow up with the information that was presented Friday.
The forum ended with time for student questions to be answered by Jay, Merz and Gifford. Though there were some disagreements between Merz and Gifford on minor details of the case, they both presented information to students and encouraged further study of their rights and responsibilities.