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Bethel

School District v. Fraser (1986)

General Rule of Law: On school grounds, schools have the right to discern appropriate student

speech.

Procedure Summary:

Plaintiff: Matthew Fraser (P)

Defendant: Bethel School District (D)

State Trial Court Decision: Held for Fraser (P)

State Court of Appeals Decision: Affirmed

Facts: In April 1983, Mathew Fraser (P), a senior at Bethel High School in Bethel, Washington,

spoke at a school assembly in order to nominate a fellow classmate for a position in the school

government. During his address, Fraser spoke to over 600 students – delivering a speech that

contained sexual references and innuendos, but no obscenities. Prior to the assembly, two

teachers had warned Fraser (P) that serious consequences could occur if he gave his speech and

suggested that he not go through with it; he did so anyway. The day following his speech,

Fraser (P) was suspended for three days and his name was removed from a list of possible

graduation commencement speakers. After attempting to get the punishment overturned

through the school board grievance procedure, Fraser’s (P) father filed a suit on his behalf,

alleging that his First Amendment right to freedom of speech had been infringed upon by the

Bethel School District (D). A federal district court agreed, awarding Fraser (P) monetary

damages and ordering that the school board could not prevent him from speaking at the
graduation ceremony. Bethel School District (D) appealed the case to the Ninth Circuit Court of

Appeals; the lower court’s ruling was affirmed. The case then moved to the Supreme Court.

Issue: Does the First Amendment prevent a school district from disciplining a high school

student for giving a lewd speech at a high school assembly?

Holding and Decision: (Majority Opinion) No. That court found that the school’s actions were

not a violation of the First Amendment and it was appropriate for a school to prohibit the use

of lewd, offensive, and vulgar language. The court concluded that there is a distinguishable

difference between protected political speech (Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School Board)

and the sexual content of the speech given by Fraser (P) at the high school assembly. The court

went on to add that the state has a vested interest in protecting students from lewd, offensive,

and vulgar language, and therefore, power should be given to school boards to determine what

speech is inappropriate.

Comment: In re-examining the issues of student expression in schools, the Court was able to

find that the First Amendment permits certain limits on student expression. The resulting

implications for schools being two-fold: first, the responsibility of teaching students what

constitutes as appropriate speech when on school grounds and second, the right to punish

students who engage in inappropriate speech.