Bethel School District v. Fraser

Facts

Matthew Fraser, a high school student, delivered a speech at a school assembly nominating a fellow student for student elective office. The speech contained sexual metaphors and innuendo. Some of the 600 students who attended the event simulated the sexual activities Fraser alluded to in the speech and other students appeared bewildered. The school suspended Fraser for violating its disciplinary rule prohibiting the use of obscene language.

Procedural History

Fraser sued the school district. The district court held the school’s sanctions violated Fraser’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech, and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.

Issue

Did the school’s disciplinary action against Fraser violate his First Amendment right to freedom of speech and/or 14th Amendment due process rights?

Holding

(C.J. Burger) The First Amendment did not prohibit the school district from disciplining Fraser for giving an offensively lewd and indecent speech at the school assembly. Further, the suspension process did not violate Fraser’s due process rights.

Rule

To fulfill their educational functions and to protect the interests of students, schools have the authority to determine that certain language or modes of expression are vulgar or inappropriate and subject to sanctions.

Reasoning

Public education has the function of inculcating fundamental values of habits and manners of civility essential to a democratic society, including tolerance of divergent and unpopular political and religious views. But in a school environment, these fundamental values must be balanced by consideration of the sensibilities of other students. It is a highly appropriate function of public school education to the prohibit the use of vulgar and offensive language to prevent disruption of the educational mission and to protect minor students from exposure to such language. The pervasive sexual innuendo in Fraser’s speech was plainly offensive to both teachers and students. Unlike the students in Tinker v. Des Moines Sch. Dist., Fraser was not expressing a political viewpoint or engaging in a silent protest. Further, the the school rule prohibiting “obscene” language and teachers’ prespeech warnings to Fraser gave him adequate notice he could be subject to sanctions if he gave the speech.

Concurrences/Dissents

Justice Brennan concurred in the judgment, emphasizing that the majority’s holding concerned only the authority of a school to restrict a student’s use of disruptive language at a school assembly, as opposed to censorship of certain viewpoints.

Justice Marshall dissented on the ground that the school district failed to prove that Fraser’s speech was disruptive.

In a separate dissent, Justice Stevens opined that Fraser did not receive fair notice under the Due Process Clause that his speech was punishable, in part because the speech did not amount to disruptive conduct under the relevant school disciplinary rule.

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