Bethel Sch. Dist. v. Fraser,
478 U.S. 675 (1986)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Bethel Sch. Dist. v. Fraser, 478 U.S. 675 (1986)

Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser

No. 84-1667

Argued March 3, 1986

Decided July 7, 1986

478 U.S. 675


Respondent public high school student (hereafter respondent) delivered a speech nominating a fellow student for a student elective office at a voluntary assembly that was held during school hours as part of a school-sponsored educational program in self-government, and that was attended by approximately 600 students, many of whom were 14-year-olds. During the entire speech, respondent referred to his candidate in terms of an elaborate, graphic, and explicit sexual metaphor. Some of the students at the assembly hooted and yelled during the speech, some mimicked the sexual activities alluded to in the speech, and others appeared to be bewildered and embarrassed. Prior to delivering the speech, respondent discussed it with several teachers, two of whom advised him that it was inappropriate and should not be given. The morning after the assembly, the Assistant Principal called respondent into her office and notified him that the school considered his speech to have been a violation of the school's "disruptive conduct rule," which prohibited conduct that substantially interfered with the educational process, including the use of obscene, profane language or gestures. Respondent was given copies of teacher reports of his conduct, and was given a chance to explain his conduct. After he admitted that he deliberately used sexual innuendo in the speech, he was informed that he would be suspended for three days, and that his name would be removed from the list of candidates for graduation speaker at the school's commencement exercises. Review of the disciplinary action through petitioner School District's grievance procedures resulted in affirmance of the discipline, but respondent was allowed to return to school after serving only two days of his suspension. Respondent, by his father (also a respondent) as guardian ad litem, then filed suit in Federal District Court, alleging a violation of his First Amendment right to freedom of speech and seeking injunctive relief and damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The court held that the school's sanctions violated the First Amendment, that the school's disruptive conduct rule was unconstitutionally vague and overbroad, and that the removal of respondent's name from the graduation speaker's list violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The court awarded respondent monetary relief and enjoined the

Page 478 U. S. 676

School District from preventing him from speaking at the commencement ceremonies. The Court of Appeals affirmed.


1. The First Amendment did not prevent the School District from disciplining respondent for giving the offensively lewd and indecent speech at the assembly. Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School Dist., 393 U. S. 503, distinguished. Under the First Amendment, the use of an offensive form of expression may not be prohibited to adults making what the speaker considers a political point, but it does not follow that the same latitude must be permitted to children in a public school. It is a highly appropriate function of public school education to prohibit the use of vulgar and offensive terms in public discourse. Nothing in the Constitution prohibits the states from insisting that certain modes of expression are inappropriate and subject to sanctions. The inculcation of these values is truly the work of the school, and the determination of what manner of speech is inappropriate properly rests with the school board. First Amendment jurisprudence recognizes an interest in protecting minors from exposure to vulgar and offensive spoken language, FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U. S. 726, as well as limitations on the otherwise absolute interest of the speaker in reaching an unlimited audience where the speech is sexually explicit and the audience may include children. Ginsberg v. New York, 390 U. S. 629. Petitioner School District acted entirely within its permissible authority in imposing sanctions upon respondent in response to his offensively lewd and indecent speech, which had no claim to First Amendment protection. Pp. 478 U. S. 680-686.

2. There is no merit to respondent's contention that the circumstances of his suspension violated due process because he had no way of knowing that the delivery of the speech would subject him to disciplinary sanctions. Given the school's need to be able to impose disciplinary sanctions for a wide range of unanticipated conduct disruptive of the educational process, the school disciplinary rules need not be as detailed as a criminal code which imposes criminal sanctions. The school disciplinary rule proscribing "obscene" language and the prespeech admonitions of teachers gave adequate warning to respondent that his lewd speech could subject him to sanctions. P. 478 U. S. 686.

755 F.2d 1356, reversed.

BURGER, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, POWELL, REHNQUIST, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. BRENNAN J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 478 U. S. 687. BLACKMUN, J. concurred in the result. MARSHALL, J., post, p. 478 U. S. 690, and STEVENS, J., post, p. 478 U. S. 691, filed dissenting opinions.

Page 478 U. S. 677

Primary Holding

Public schools have the right to discipline a student for giving a speech at a school assembly that is indecent, although not obscene.


At Bethel High School in Pierce County, Washington, senior student Matthew Fraser used a series of sexual double entendres in a speech that nominated one of his classmates for the position of Associated Student Body Vice President. The school administration found him in violation of policies regarding vulgar speech and disruptive behavior. He appealed these findings through the internal grievance procedures of the school but was unsuccessful. The school barred Fraser from speaking at graduation, even though a write-in vote would have selected him as one of the three speakers. He also was subject to other penalties, including a suspension.

When Fraser brought a First Amendment claim against the school, he succeeded in federal district court and at the Ninth Circuit, which supported a broad view of free speech protections.

Procedural History

US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit - 755 F.2d 1356 (1985)

Affirmed. This type of speech is not obscene and thus is protected under the First Amendment, in accordance with the Supreme Court's decision in Tinker v. Des Moines that gave students free-speech protections in schools.


  • Jeff Haley (plaintiff)



  • Warren Earl Burger (Author)
  • Byron Raymond White
  • Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr.
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist
  • Sandra Day O'Connor

Finding that the school's policy did not infringe on First Amendment rights, the majority tried to distinguish its reasoning from the precedent in Tinker v. Des Moines (1969). This decision had seemed to rule resoundingly in favor of free speech protections in schools. The majority used this case to narrow the holding in Tinker, allowing schools to regulate certain types of speech, such as those that are vulgar, on the grounds that they could disrupt school discipline. Since the speech in question was not political, as it was in Tinker, it was entitled to a lower level of protection.


  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr. (Author)


  • Harry Andrew Blackmun (Author)


  • Thurgood Marshall (Author)


  • John Paul Stevens (Author)

Case Commentary

Schools have the responsibility of instructing students in what constitutes socially appropriate behavior and speech, so they have the right to punish inappropriate speech. It also interfered with the operation of the school by requiring it to explain the situation to younger students.

As an historical aside, it is worth noting that this was the last Supreme Court decision during Burger's tenure as Chief Justice.

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