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Bethel School District v. Fraser
Transcript of Bethel School District v. Fraser
Does the First Amendment prevent a school district from disciplining a high school student for giving a lewd speech at a high school assembly?
Do school officials have authority to impose limits on student speech of the kind specified in the disruptive conduct rule?
At a school assembly of approximately 600 high school students, Matthew Fraser made a speech nominating a fellow student for elective office. In his speech, Fraser used what some observers believed was a graphic sexual metaphor to promote the candidacy of his friend. As part of its disciplinary code, Bethel High School enforced a rule prohibiting conduct which "substantially interferes with the educational process . . . including the use of obscene, profane language or gestures." Fraser was suspended from school for two days. His parents appealed the school's disciplinary action. The Washington Supreme Court agreed that his free speech rights had been violated. The school board then appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Warren Burger was the Chief Justice in 1986 which is when the case happened. The ruling was 7 votes for Bethel School District and 2 votes against. The Court found that it was appropriate for the school to prohibit the use of vulgar and offensive language. Chief Justice Burger distinguished between political speech which the Court previously had protected in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969) and the supposed sexual content of Fraser's message at the assembly. Burger concluded that the First Amendment did not prohibit schools from prohibiting vulgar and lewd speech since such discourse was inconsistent with the "fundamental values of public school education." Facts of the Case Impact of Case The Court's decision contributed to the concept that students in a public school do not necessarily have the same constitutional rights as adults outside of school.