Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser

PETITIONER: Bethel School District No. 403
RESPONDENT: Matthew N. Fraser, a minor, and E.L. Fraser, Guardian Ad Litem
LOCATION: Bethel High School

DOCKET NO.: 84-1667
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 478 US 675 (1986)
ARGUED: Mar 03, 1986
DECIDED: Jul 07, 1986

Jeffrey T. Haley - Argued the cause for the respondents
William A. Coats - Argued the cause for the petitioners

Facts of the case

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.


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

Media for Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 03, 1986 in Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser

Warren E. Burger:

Mr. Coats, you may proceed whenever you're ready.

William A. Coats:

Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the Court:

The issue is this case is whether a public school district may regulate indecent speech in a public school setting that does not amount to obscene speech under this Court's Miller versus California standard.

The facts in this case are that on April 26th, 1983, Matt Fraser, a 17 year old high school senior, gave a speech to the associated student body.

The speech was to introduce his candidate for the vice president's position of the associated student body.

He gave a crude and vulgar speech.

The speech is set forth in full in the briefs and there's no purpose to repeat it here.

It is important to note that Mr. Fraser did obtain significant reaction to his speech, that some of the students hooted and hollered, some of the students looked bewildered, some looked embarrassed.

Some students even acted out certain physical acts symbolizing various sexual acts.

After the speech, the school administration investigated the incident and provided Mr. Fraser with his due process rights and suspended him for three days and struck him from the list of those candidates who would be considered to be a graduation speaker.

Mr. Fraser appealed to the district court.

The district court, as affirmed by the Ninth Circuit, has ruled that public school districts can only regulate student speech if it is obscene under the Miller versus California standard, or the one exception they seemingly recognized is if the speech caused a physical disruption or there was a reasonable prediction of a physical disruption.

Finally, the district court, as affirmed by the Ninth Circuit, struck down the district's disruptive conduct rule, holding it was overbroad and vague.

It is well decided and we agree that students do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse door.

However, it is equally well decided that those constitutional rights will be administered in a way that is sensitive to the speech environment.

We are here because the Ninth Circuit we believe has misconstrued the extent of the rights a student has under the First Amendment in the public school setting.

They failed to recognize the special relationship between students and their teacher; and finally, they failed to recognize the secondary effects such conduct has in the public school setting.

In beginning our analysis of the First Amendment, it is useful to compare this case with this Court's decision in Tinker versus Des Moines School District.

In Tinker, the facts were that students wore black arm bands into the public schools in protest of the Vietnam War.

There was nothing intrinsically harmful about the black arm bands.

What the school officials were concerned about was that the black arm bands stood for protest against this Government's position in Vietnam.

Tinker was a viewpoint discrimination case, where the school officials determined that that viewpoint on an important student policy issue should not be interjected in the school system.

Contrasting that case with this fact pattern, it is noteworthy that Mr. Fraser at testimony was asked,

"What was the purpose of your speech? "

He responded quite candidly:

"I gave the speech to humor my audience, in the hopes they would vote for my candidate. "

There's no overriding public policy.

Lewis F. Powell, Jr.:

Did his candidate win?

William A. Coats:

His candidate did win.

Thurgood Marshall:

How many students are there involved here?