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Bethel School District v. Fraser

Bethel School District v. Fraser
Argued March 3, 1986
Decided July 7, 1986
Full case name Bethel School District No. 403, Matthew N. Fraser, a minor, et al.
Citations 478 U.S. 675 (more)
106 S. Ct. 3159; 92 L. Ed. 2d 549; 1986 U.S. LEXIS 139; 54 U.S.L.W. 5054
Prior history Judgment for plaintiff; affirmed, 755 F.2d 1356 (1985); certiorari granted, 474 U.S. 814 (1985)
Subsequent history 89
The First Amendment, as applied through the Fourteenth, permits a public school to punish a student for giving a lewd and indecent, even if not obscene, speech at a school assembly. Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded.
Court membership
</td></tr><tr><th colspan="2" style="text-align:center;background-color: #99c0ff; white-space:nowrap">Case opinions</th></tr><tr><th scope="row" style="text-align:left">Majority</th><td>

Burger, joined by White, Powell, Rehnquist, O'Connor</td></tr><tr><th scope="row" style="text-align:left">Concurrence</th><td> Brennan</td></tr><tr><th scope="row" style="text-align:left">Concurrence</th><td> Blackmun</td></tr><tr><th scope="row" style="text-align:left">Dissent</th><td> Marshall</td></tr><tr><th scope="row" style="text-align:left">Dissent</th><td> Stevens</td></tr><tr><th colspan="2" style="text-align:center;background-color: #99c0ff; white-space:nowrap">Laws applied</th></tr><tr><td colspan="2" style="text-align:center"> U.S. Const. amends. I, XIV; 42 U.S.C. § 1983</td></tr></table> Bethel School District v. Fraser, 478 U.S. 675 (1986), was a United States Supreme Court decision involving free speech and public schools. Matthew Fraser was suspended from school for making a speech full of sexual double entendres at a school assembly. The Supreme Court held that his suspension did not violate the First Amendment.


On April 26, 1983, Matthew Fraser, a Pierce County, Washington high school senior, gave a speech nominating classmate Jeff Kuhlman for Associated Student Body Vice President.[1] The speech was filled with sexual innuendos, but not obscenity, prompting disciplinary action from the administration.[2]

Fraser's speech was as follows:[3]

"I know a man who is firm - he's firm in his pants, he's firm in his shirt, his character is firm - but most of all, his belief in you the students of Bethel, is firm. Jeff Kuhlman is a man who takes his point and pounds it in. If necessary, he'll take an issue and nail it to the wall. He doesn't attack things in spurts - he drives hard, pushing and pushing until finally - he succeeds. Jeff is a man who will go to the very end - even the climax, for each and every one of you. So please vote for Jeff Kuhlman, as he'll never come between us and the best our school can be. He is firm enough to give it everything."

After appealing through the grievance procedures of his school, he was still found to be in violation of several school policies against disruptive behavior and the use of vulgar and offensive speech. These grounds later evolved to include obscenity at trial, but obscenity, according to Fraser, was not listed as grounds for his punishment in his initial hearing with school vice-principal Christy Blair. Fraser was suspended from school for three days as a result, was prohibited from speaking at his graduation ceremony, and his name was stricken from the ballot used to elect three graduation speakers. Fraser nonetheless was selected by a write-in vote which placed him second overall among the top three finishers, although Bethel High School administrators refused to accept the write-in vote as a valid result, and continued to deny Fraser the opportunity to speak at graduation.

With approval from his parents and help from ACLU cooperating attorney Jeff Haley, Matt Fraser filed a lawsuit against the school authorities claiming a violation of his First Amendment right to free speech, and U.S. District Court judge Jack Tanner ruled in his favor.

The school district then appealed to the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled in Fraser's favor with a broadly worded opinion. The school district asked the United States Supreme Court to consider the case and it agreed to do so.

Opinion of the Court

The US Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals in a 7-2 vote to reinstate the suspension, saying that the school district's policy did not violate the First Amendment.[4] Chief Justice Warren Burger delivered the Court's opinion, in what ended up along with the Gramm-Rudman decision to be the final case of the Burger Court era. Fraser referred to this as "the silver lining in the grim cloud of my defeat." Justices William J. Brennan and Harry Blackmun delivered concurring opinions, while Thurgood Marshall and John Paul Stevens dissented.[4]

Though the Court distinguished its 1969 decision Tinker v. Des Moines, which upheld the right of students to express themselves where their words (or in that case, the wearing of a protest armband) are nondisruptive and could not be seen as connected with the school, Fraser limits the scope of that ruling, by prohibiting certain styles of expression that are sexually vulgar.[4]

See also

  • Finkelman, P., & Urofsky, M. I. (2003). Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser. In Landmark decisions of the United States Supreme Court. Washington: CQ Press. Retrieved January 22, 2009, from CQ Press Electronic Library, CQ Supreme Court Collection, Document ID: lndmrk03-113-6442-349542.


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