Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser 1986

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Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser 1986

Petitioners: Bethel School District, et al.

Respondents: Matthew N. Fraser, et al.

Petitioners' Claim: That punishing Fraser for using offensive language in high school assembly speech did not violate the freedom of speech.

Chief Lawyer for Petitioners: William A. Coats

Chief Lawyer for Respondents: Jeffrey T. Haley

Justices for the Court: Harry A. Blackmun, William J. Brennan, Jr., Warren E. Burger, Sandra Day O'Connor, Lewis F. Powell, Jr., William H. Rehnquist, Byron R. White

Justices Dissenting: Thurgood Marshall, John Paul Stevens

Date of Decision: July 7, 1986

Decision: Bethel High School did not violate the freedom of speech by punishing Fraser.

Significance: Bethel says students in school have less freedom of speech than adults in public. Schools can encourage good values by punishing offensive speech that people may use outside school.

T he First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the freedom of speech in America. It says, "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging [limiting] the freedom of speech." State and local governments must obey the freedom of speech under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Due Process Clause prevents state and local governments from violating a person's right to life, liberty (or freedom), and property.

In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School (1969), the Supreme Court said that students do not lose their freedom of speech when they go to school. Students, like adults, are people under the Constitution, so they are also protected by the First Amendment. In Tinker, the Court said that schools can limit free speech only when it interferes with learning.

School assembly

Matthew N. Fraser was an outstanding student at Bethel High School in Pierce County, Washington. In April 1983, Fraser prepared to give a speech at a school assembly. The assembly was part of a school program to teach about government. In his speech, Fraser would nominate a fellow classmate, Jeff Kuhlman, as student vice-president. Fraser prepared a speech that referred to Kuhlman using many metaphors about male sexuality.

Before the assembly, Fraser shared his speech with three teachers. One teacher told Fraser that the speech was inappropriate and that Fraser "probably should not deliver it." Another said the speech would cause problems "in that it would raise eyebrows." Evidence indicated that another person said the speech would have severe consequences. None of the teachers, however, told Fraser that the speech violated the student handbook.

Fraser delivered his speech at the assembly on April 26, 1983. Six hundred students were in the audience, some as young as fourteen. During Fraser's speech, some students hooted and yelled, and a few mimicked the sexual activities they thought Fraser was describing. Other students appeared to be embarrassed by Fraser's speech. There was no evidence, however, that the speech offended anyone.

Bethel High's student handbook had a rule that prevented students from interfering with education by using obscene or profane language. The day after the assembly, the assistant principal called Fraser into her office and told him that she believed he had violated the rule. The principal had letters from five teachers describing Fraser's speech. One teacher said she had to skip a part of her lesson to discuss the speech with her class.

Fraser admitted that he used sexual references in his speech. As a punishment, Bethel High School suspended Fraser for three days and removed his name from a list of candidates for graduation speaker. Fraser challenged his punishment. A hearing officer, however, approved the punishment after deciding that Fraser's speech was "indecent, lewd, and offensive." Fraser served two days of his suspension and was allowed to return to school on the third day.

Fraser sues

Fraser sued Bethel High School in federal district court. He argued that the school violated the First Amendment by punishing him for his assembly speech. The district court agreed and awarded Fraser over $13,000 for damages and attorneys' fees. The court also said that the Bethel School District could not prevent Fraser from being the graduation speaker. After being elected by his classmates, Fraser gave a graduation speech on June 8, 1983.

Meanwhile, Bethel School District appealed the case. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed (approved) the district court's decision. It said that under Tinker, schools cannot punish a student for speech unless he disrupts education. Even if Fraser's speech was offensive, it did not disrupt learning at Bethel High. Bethel School District disagreed and took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Fraser loses

With a 7–2 decision, the Supreme Court reversed and ruled in favor of Bethel School District. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger wrote the Court's opinion.

Justice Burger agreed that under Tinker, the First Amendment protects students even when they are in school. Justice Burger said, however, that one of the purposes of school is to teach students how to be good citizens. Part of being a good citizen is learning how to behave in public. Therefore, the freedom of speech in school must be balanced against the school's need to teach socially appropriate behavior.

Justice Burger also agreed that the freedom of speech allows adults to use offensive language, even in public. He said, however, that students in school have less protection under the First Amendment than adults in public. Fraser's speech about male sexuality may have offended teenage girls. It also may have caused problems for younger students who were just learning about sexuality. Justice Burger decided that Bethel High was allowed to punish Fraser to make the point that vulgar language is wrong under the values taught by public education.


I n 1969, Robert Olff was a fifteen-year-old student in good standing at James Lick High School in San Jose, California. The school had the following rule for boy's hair: "Hair shall be trim and clean. A boy's hair shall not fall below the eyes in front and shall not cover the ears, and it shall not extend below the collar in the back."

On September 10, 1969, when Olff went to school to register for the year, a teacher sent him to see the vice-principal. The vice-principal said that Olff's hair violated the school rule. Olff was not allowed to attend school until he cut his hair.

Olff sued the school in federal district court. He argued that the school's rule violated his freedom of expression. Teachers for the school said that long hair on boys created "a less serious atmosphere, more [wasted] time, more discipline problems, more class distractions, and less education." Although the district court ruled in Olff's favor, the court of appeals reversed. It said that the hair rule did not violate the freedom of expression or the right of privacy. Instead, it was a valid rule designed to foster education at James Lick High School. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the case.

No warning

Two justices dissented, meaning they disagreed with the Court's decision. Justice Thurgood Marshall did not think that Fraser's speech had disrupted learning at Bethel High. Justice John Paul Stevens agreed with Justice Marshall. Justice Stevens also thought that Fraser's punishment was unfair because neither the student handbook nor the three teachers had warned Fraser that he could be suspended for giving his speech. Justice Stevens said that the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prevents public schools from punishing students without fair warning.

Suggestions for further reading

Evans, J. Edward. Freedom of Speech. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, Inc., 1990.

Farish, Leah. The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech, Religion, and the Press. Hillside, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1998.

King, David C. The Right to Speak Out. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1997.

Klinker, Philip A. The First Amendment. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Silver Burdett Press, 1991.

Pascoe, Elaine. Freedom of Expression: The Right to Speak Out in America. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1992.

Steele, Philip, Philip Skele, and Penny Clarke. Freedom of Speech? New York: Franklin Watts, 1997.

Zeinert, Karen. Free Speech: From Newspapers to Music Lyrics. Hillside, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1995.

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Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser 1986

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Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser 1986