Bethel School District v. Fraser, 478 U.S. 675 (1986)

2011-11-29 09:43:24

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

On April 26, 1983, Matthew N. Fraser, a high school student, delivered a speech nominating a fellow student for student elective office. In attendance were about 600 high school students, some as young as fourteen years of age, and faculty. During the speech, Fraser referred to his classmate ‘‘in terms of an elaborate, graphic, and explicit sexual metaphor’’ according to the Court. Fraser was given a three-day suspension, and he was removed from the list of candidates to give the commencement speech. Prior to delivering the speech, Fraser had discussed the content of the speech with two of his teachers who informed him that it was ‘‘inappropriate and that he probably should not deliver it.’’ Both teachers also told Fraser that the delivery of the speech might have ‘‘severe consequences.’’

The Court distinguished its earlier ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School Dist. as the lewd speech in this case was disruptive, whereas the students’ actions in Tinker were ‘‘nondisruptive’’ and ‘‘passive.’’ The Court further noted the marked distinction between the political ‘‘message’’ of the armbands in Tinker and the sexual content of Fraser’s speech. The Court was careful and deliberate in distinguishing the landmark Tinker ruling and reacknowledged the Tinker Court’s famous adage that ‘‘students do not ‘shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.’’’ The Court re-affirmed the somewhat unique role of public schools within the larger constitutional framework and the burden placed on public schools to not only provide substantive education but also to inculcate students with the ‘‘fundamental values necessary to the maintenance of a democratic political system.’’

The Court also reaffirmed its holding in New Jersey v. T.L.O. that the ‘‘constitutional rights in public schools are not automatically coextensive with the rights of adults in other settings.’’

The Court held that the school district had not violated the First Amendment and had acted ‘‘entirely within it permissible authority’’ in punishing him under school disciplinary rules for his lewd and indecent speech.

Justices Brennan and Blackmun concurred with the majority opinion written by Chief Justice Burger. Justice Marshall dissented from the majority opinion in narrow fashion, asserting specifically that the school district had failed to demonstrate that Fraser’s remarks were actually disruptive while agreeing in principle with Justice Brennan’s concurrence.

Justice Stevens’s dissent focused not on whether the school could govern the type of speech at issue in this case generally but more specifically on whether Fraser was given fair notice of the rule at issue and the consequences of his actions. Stevens’s dissent addressed not the content of the speech but also its context: ‘‘It seems fairly obvious that respondent’s speech would be inappropriate in certain classroom and formal social settings. On the other hand, in a locker room or perhaps in a school corridor the metaphor in the speech might be regarded as rather routine comment. If this be true, and if respondent’s audience consisted almost entirely of young people with whom he conversed on a daily basis, can we— at this distance—confidently assert that he must have known that the school administration would punish him for delivering it?’’

Fraser is an important case that provides some boundaries to the general notion set forth in Tinker that ‘‘students do not ‘shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.’’’ These boundaries take the form of the Court’s attempt to balance students’ right to free speech and expression with the vital need for discipline in the public school environment.


References and Further Reading

  • Hudson, David L., and John E. Ferguson, The Courts’ Inconsistent Treatment of Bethel v. Fraser and the Curtailment of Student Rights, John Marshall Law Review 36 (Fall 2002): 181
  • Slaff, Sara, Silencing Student Speech: Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser, Note, American University Law Review 37 (Fall 1987): 203

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325 (1985) 
  • Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School Dist., 393 U.S. 503 (1969)