Tom Freston’s Supreme Court surprise

February 11, 2009, 11:43 PM UTC

Since Tom Freston got blown out of Viacom – ousted by hard-to-please chairman Sumner Redstone in 2006 – he’s been doing lots of things that other ex-CEOs wouldn’t fathom getting into. Working with Oprah Winfrey and Bono. Making films in Afghanistan, where he once lived. Funding humanitarian projects in Kabul and southeast Asia too.

You can read about all this in my profile of Freston in the current issue of Fortune. I didn’t have room there to tell you about one other interesting thing that Freston has done since leaving Viacom. He took a lawsuit all the way to the Supreme Court. And won.

Until now, Freston has refused to talk about the case. That’s because it involved his son, Gil, who was just eight years old and struggling in school when Freston sued the New York City Board of Education a decade ago. His beef? New York City refused to reimburse Freston for Gil’s private education unless Gil, a learning-disabled student, tried public school first.

Say what you will about Freston’s audacity in wanting taxpayers to finance his son’s private education. A media mogul, Freston certainly could afford Gil’s $21,819-a-year tuition at the private Stephen Gaynor School on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. But Freston believed it was unfair that other people who couldn’t afford such high cost of private education might have to deny their special-needs child the privilege of going to the best school. “It just didn’t seem right to me,” Freston says. “People in the special-education community said to me, ‘This is a test case. Would you take this on?”

He did, but anonymously. Freston insisted on being known as “Tom F.” in the lawsuit because neither he nor Gil wanted any publicity. Then, years after the case had wound its way through the court system, a clerk, unwittingly it appears, put Freston’s full name in a public document. Freston and Gil, who was by then attending a mainstream high school, were horrified. “Well, you know what you can do for your college essay,” Freston told his son, trying to make the best of it.

Freston never expected his case to go to the top tier of the legal system. “You know, it moves through the courts like molasses,” he says. “Then one day you get a call that it’s going to the Supreme Court.” In October 2007, the Supreme Court affirmed a lower-court ruling that parents are entitled to be reimbursed for private-school tuition even if their children have never tried public school. The justices split 4-4, with Justice Anthony Kennedy recusing himself. “In the end, we’re proud of it,” Freston says. “Even though I didn’t want to shine the light on my involvement, it was a great case of justice being served.”

Gil did write about the case for his essays when he applied to USC and Emerson. He got into both schools. He’s now a freshman at USC.