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Bethel School District v. Fraser

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Bethel School District v. Fraser, 478 U.S. 675 (1986), was a landmark decision by the United States Supreme Court involving free speech in public schools. High school student Matthew Fraser was suspended from school in the Bethel School District in Washington for making a speech including sexual innuendo at a school assembly. The Supreme Court held that his suspension did not violate his First Amendment right to freedom of speech.


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. The speech was filled with sexual innuendos, but not obscenity, prompting disciplinary action from the administration.
Fraser's speech was as follows:
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. As a result, Fraser was suspended from school for three days, though he returned after two, and was prohibited from speaking at his graduation ceremony. 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 American Civil Liberties Union 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 United States 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.Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law Chief Justice Warren Burger delivered the Court's opinion, in what ended up along with the Gramm–Rudman decision (Bowsher v. Synar) to be the final case of the Burger Court era. Justices William J. Brennan and Harry Blackmun delivered concurring opinions, while Thurgood Marshall and John Paul Stevens dissented.
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.

See also

  • School speech
    • Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969)
    • Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260 (1988)
    • Broussard v. School Board of Norfolk, 801 F. Supp. 1526 (E.D. Va. 1992)
    • Desilets v. Clearview Regional Board of Education, 647 A.2d. 150 (N.J. 1994)
    • Morse v. Frederick, 551 U.S. 393 (2007)
  • Obscenity
    • Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15 (1971)
    • Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15 (1973)
  • List of United States Supreme Court cases
    • Lists of United States Supreme Court cases by volume
    • List of United States Supreme Court cases, volume 478
    • List of United States Supreme Court cases by the Rehnquist Court

Further reading

  • 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.
  • External links

    • {{caselaw source
    case=Bethel School District v. Fraser,
    loc =
    oyez =
  • Text of Fraser's speech

  • Category:United States Supreme Court cases
    Category:United States Free Speech Clause case law
    Category:1986 in United States case law
    Category:Student rights case law in the United States
    Category:United States Supreme Court cases of the Burger Court
    Category:1986 in education
    Category:Education in Pierce County, Washington
    Category:History of Pierce County, Washington
    Category:United States obscenity case law
    Category:Obscenity controversies

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