When the Olympic torch passed through Juneau, Alaska, in 2002, 18-year-old Joseph Frederick saw a chance at TV airtime. His tactic: a banner reading BONG HITS 4 JESUS. Not amused, Frederick‘s principal confiscated the banner and suspended him for five days. He shot back something about Thomas Jefferson. She tacked on another five.
Frederick took his free-speech argument to court, with backing from the ACLU. Five years later it was before the U.S. Supreme Court, with Kenneth Starr representing the school. The court ruled that since Frederick was holding the banner at a “school-supervised” (though not on school grounds) event, the principal had a right to restrict what he said about illegal drugs—even if his message was rather nonsensical.
Now 25, Frederick is learning Mandarin and teaching English in China. Although he is proud that he stood up for his rights, he regrets “the bad precedent set by the ruling.” His case was finally settled at the state level in November, winning him $45,000 and forcing the school to hold a forum on free speech.
Mary Beth Tinker, plaintiff in the 1969 Supreme Court free speech case Tinker v. Des Moines, discusses First Amendment rights with Joseph Frederick.