Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser



In April 1983, defendant and student Matthew Fraser delivered a speech at Bethel High School in Washington nominating a fellow student for a seat in student elective office. Approximately 600 students attended the mandatory assembly; most of the students were 14-year-olds. Fraser used double entendres in his speech, including “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.” The assistant principal called Fraser in the next morning and confronted him about violating the school’s rule prohibiting the use of obscene language. Fraser admitted that he “deliberately used sexual innuendo in the speech.” Subsequently, the school suspended Fraser for three days and did not allow him to speak at commencement.

The school district held a hearing after Fraser complained; the officer agreed with the school that Fraser was “indecent, lewd and offensive” to the people in attendance. Fraser took his case to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, where the court ruled that the school violated Fraser’s First Amendment right to free speech. The court also said that the school’s disruptive-conduct rule was vague and that the school violated the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment when they did not allow Fraser to speak at graduation. In return, Fraser received $278 in damages, $12,750 for legal fees and spoke at commencement. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit agreed with the District Court’s ruling.

The school district brought the case to the Supreme Court. The Court reversed the judgment of the District and Appeals courts in a 7-2 ruling. Justice Burger wrote in his opinion, “The pervasive sexual innuendo in Fraser’s speech was plainly offensive to both teachers and students indeed to any mature person.” He said that Fraser’s speech was “wholly inconsistent with the ‘fundamental values’ of public school education.” The Court also said that the school did not violate the Due Process Clause because the school has “to impose disciplinary sanctions for a wide range of unanticipated conduct, disruptive of the educational process.” In a dissenting opinion, Justice Stevens wrote that before the Fraser’s speech, he should have been specifically warned by teachers, told about the school’s disciplinary rule and informed about obvious impropriety.

Read the Supreme Court's opinion.