Bethel School District v. Fraser

Melelani and Helen

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Background

  • 1980-1989.

  • At a high school assembly, 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.(1)

  • As part of its disciplinary code, Bethel High School enforced a rule prohibiting the use of obscene, profane language or gestures. Fraser was suspended from school for two days.(1)

Question

Does the First Amendment prevent a school district from disciplining a high school student for giving a lewd speech at a high school assembly?

Arguments for Bethel School District

  • Matthew Fraser's behavior was disruptive to the educational process.(2)
  • He made a mockery out of an exercise in citizenship(2)
  • He exceeded the bounds of good taste appropriate for a school setting(2)
  • Schools must have the authority to guide young people into healthy and acceptable social forms of expression(2)

Arguments for Matthew Fraser

  • The 1st Amendment protections of citizens were especially designed for situations in which political speeches are made.(2)
  • Common speech forms are changing, and school authorities are often a generation or two behind these changes.(2)
  • The speech was not offensive to the great majority of students, in fact many students cheered him on.(2)

The Decision

  • The court ruled 7-2 in favor of Bethel School District(1)
  • The school's rules and the disciplinary action against Matthew Fraser were deemed appropriate for a public school. Fraser's freedom of speech did not extend to being permitted to make a lewd and suggestive speech in school.(2)
  • Burger wrote that "the use of an offensive form of expression may not be prohibited when an adult speaker uses it to make a political point…[but] the same latitude of expression is not permitted to children in a public school."(2)

Precedent

  • 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(1)
  • 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."(1)

Citations

1. BETHEL SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 403 v. FRASER. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 21 April 2015. <http://www.oyez.org/cases/1980-1989/1985/1985_84_1667>.


2. Pearson Prentice Hall: Supreme Court cases: http://www.phschool.com/atschool/ss_web_codes/supreme_court_cases/bethel.html