Kirkland & Ellis LLP has taken on an unusual pro bono case because it wants to support the public school system, the firm says.
The Los Angeles law firm is defending an Alaskan school district that suspended a student who held up a sign reading "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" as the torch relay passed by prior to the 2002 Winter Olympics.
Former special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, trial lawyer Rick Richmond and veteran patent attorney Eric Hagen are representing the Juneau School Board and Deborah Morse, former principal of Juneau-Douglas High School.
The board wants to appeal a court ruling that supported a student's right to display the banner as the torch relay wound through Juneau. The banner was visible during the televised parade.
The pro bono team filed a petition review with the U.S. Supreme Court last week. If four justices agree, the case will be given a spot on the docket.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals said school officials violated Joseph Frederick's First Amendment rights by suspending him from school and that he had the right to any speech that didn't disrupt school proceedings or its educational mission.
Frederick originally sued the school board to get the suspension removed from his permanent record.
Kirkland & Ellis, one of the country's largest and most profitable firms, was drawn to the case by the idea of protecting the schools.
"It's no secret they are struggling," Richmond said. "There are so many challenges these days with funding, teachers' unions, competition from private schools, charter schools."
He pointed out that schools can lose federal funding for failing to provide a consistent anti-drug message and noted that students were allowed to leave class and stand in front of the school as the relay went by. Although Frederick was one of the students across the street from the school, he was attending a school-sponsored event that was being supervised by teachers and administrators, Richmond contends.
"I don't think it makes any difference if he was in his classroom or if it's a school-sponsored event 20 miles away," Richmond said. "The school has to be able to control school activities with respect to anti-drug messages."
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