Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser
In Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser (1986), the Supreme Court held that school officials did not violate a high school student’s free speech and due process rights when he was disciplined for making a lewd and vulgar speech at a school assembly. Bethel is known today for limiting the expression rights of students in school settings. Specifically, Bethel grants school officials the authority to restrict lewd, vulgar, or offensive student speech.
Facts of the Case
In Bethel, Matthew Fraser, a public high school student, gave a nominating speech for a classmate who was running for an office in student government. The speech, which occurred during school hours at an assembly as part of a school-sponsored educational program, was attended by approximately 600 students. During Fraser’s speech, he made numerous sexual innuendos and references, causing the audience to react in a variety of ways; some appeared confused and embarrassed, while others yelled and made obscene gestures.
Prior to the student assembly, two educators warned Fraser that he should not give the speech and that if he did, serious consequences would result. After Fraser delivered the controversial speech, the school’s assistant principal told him that by doing so he violated the school’s policy prohibiting the use of obscene language. As punishment, school officials suspended Fraser for three days and removed his name from the list of possible graduation commencement speakers.
Disagreeing with his punishment, Fraser first went through the school board’s grievance procedure, at which the hearing officer determined that the discipline that Fraser was subjected to was legitimate. Next, Fraser, through his father, filed suit in a federal trial court in Washington State, alleging that officials infringed on his First Amendment right to freedom of speech. The court addressed three legal issues: first, that officials violated Fraser’s free speech rights; second, that the discipline policy that prohibited the speech was “unconstitutionally vague and overbroad”; and third, that officials violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment in removing Fraser’s name from the list of graduation speakers. The court granted Fraser monetary damages and ordered the school board to allow him to speak at the graduation.
The school appealed the case to the Ninth Circuit, which affirmed in favor of Fraser. The Ninth Circuit maintained that Fraser’s speech was no different from the student speech in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969). In Tinker, the Supreme Court held that school officials could not discipline students who wore black armbands to protest the Vietnam War based solely on the fear that the students would cause a disruption.
Further, the Ninth Circuit rejected the schools’ following three arguments. First, the court rejected the notion that Fraser’s speech differed from the passive speech in Tinker because his speech actually caused a disruption. Second, the court disagreed that officials had the responsibility to protect minors from “lewd and indecent” language. Third, the court did not think that officials had the authority to control speech that occurred during a school-sponsored event.
The Court’s Ruling
In a 7-to-2 decision, the Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit’s decision and agreed with the school’s arguments. Specifically, the Court held that the discipline of Fraser did not violate the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment or the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Under the First Amendment, the Court reasoned that officials could discipline Fraser’s lewd and indecent speech. Although Tinker established that students should be afforded free expression rights while at school, the Court explained that their rights are not equivalent to an adult’s freedom of speech. Moreover, the Court pointed out that the sexual content of Fraser’s speech was distinguishable from the nondisruptive, political speech that was at issue in Tinker.
The Court added that because schools are responsible for instilling certain values in students, officials at schools should be able to teach students about what is not socially acceptable speech. In a related case, the Supreme Court held in FCC v. Pacifica Foundation (1978) that the state has an interest in protecting children from vulgar and offensive language. The Court noted that on the one hand, while school officials should allow controversial views to be expressed, on the other, they must balance this interest with those of other students who may be offended by certain language.
Turning to the Fourteenth Amendment, the Court decided that officials did not violate Fraser’s due process rights. First, the Court was of the opinion that a school’s disciplinary policy does not need to be as descriptive as a criminal code, because such a policy does not impose criminal sentences. As such, the Court indicated that as a result of his two-day suspension, Fraser was afforded the appropriate level of due process procedures. Second, the Court found that Fraser received ample notice that his inappropriate speech could result in punishment. In fact, the Court determined not only that school officials had an antiobscenity rule, but also that they provided Fraser with sufficient warning of the consequences of his actions.
In upholding the rights of school officials to place limits on student expressive activities in school settings, Fraser is important because it acknowledges that they are responsible for more than simply passing on educational information and can expect students to behave in ways that are not disruptive to school activities.
Janet R. Rumple
See also Due Process; Free Speech and Expression Rights of Students; Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier; Morse v. Frederick; Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District
- Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser, 478 U.S. 675 (1986).
- FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U.S. 726 (1978).
- Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260 (1988).
- Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969).