OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Book casts light on how a controversy over a high school student's First Amendment rights escalated to national spotlight

10/25/2010

BEND, Ore. – It began as a sophomoric, attention-grabbing prank by teens in Juneau, Alaska, weeks before the 2002 Winter Olympics were to begin a couple of thousand miles away in Utah, and snowballed into a national dispute over constitutional free speech issues.

And a roundtable discussion on that case at a 2007 regional political science gathering has now turned into a book written by an Oregon State University-Cascades professor.

James Foster, who has spent 25 years at OSU and OSU-Cascades specializing in Supreme Court policies and politics, is the author of the curiously titled book, “BONG HiTS 4 JESUS,” a reference to the hastily produced banner that started the entire controversy. Published by the University of Alaska Press and distributed by the University of Chicago Press, it is available in book stores, libraries and online, at  http://www.alaska.edu/uapress or http://www.press.uchicago.edu/News/distributed.html

A reading and book signing with Foster will be held on Monday, Nov. 8, in OSU’s Memorial Union, at 7 p.m. in the Joyce Powell Leadership Room.

Subtitled “A Perfect Constitutional Storm in Alaska’s Capital,” Foster’s book outlines the case of Morse v. Frederick. In January of 2002, Juneau-Douglas high school student Joe Frederick and 13 others hoisted a banner with the words, BONG HiTS 4 JESUS, prominently displayed as the Olympic torch wound its way down Glacier Avenue.

When school authorities approached the students, all but one student left – Joe Frederick. School principal Deborah Morse suspended him for 10 days and the lines of free speech versus authority were drawn.

“In the most basic sense, the book is about a breakdown of communication,” Foster said. “The circumstances played into it. It was the first time the Olympic torch was in Alaska, there was civic pride on the line and a lot of ego was invested. And there was only one way through town – down Glacier Avenue – so the students knew where to stand.

“But rather than talk to the students and say something like, ‘hey, not a good idea,’ the principal ordered them to take it down,” he added. “She was seen as authoritative and unwilling to talk; Frederick was seen as an outsider, newly arrived from Washington, and something of a provocateur.

“If calmer heads had prevailed, they might have talked things out,” Foster said, “and it never would have escalated out of control.”

The case drew national attention because it was the first free speech heard by the Supreme Court in nearly two decades. Ken Starr volunteered to argue Deborah Morse' case, pro bono, and the court was deeply divided. It ended up a 5-4 decision upholding Morse’s authority, but the aftershocks from the January day continue.

“Five different justices offered five different opinions on what it all meant,” Foster said, “Not only was this a divisive and complex case, it turned into a conceptual mess.”

Foster is former chair of the OSU Political Science Department and now a professor at OSU-Cascades Campus in Bend, where he teaches at the state’s first branch campus.