Key Supreme Court Cases

Bethel School District v. Fraser (478 U.S. 675, 1986)
Free Expression for Students

The 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?

Facts and Background
Mathew Fraser, a senior at Bethel High School in Bethel, Washington, spoke to a school assembly to nominate a classmate for an office in student government. His speech was filled with sexual references and innuendos, but it contained no obscenities. The good news is that Fraser's candidate was overwhelmingly elected. The bad news was that Fraser was suspended from the school for three days and removed from the list of students who were eligible to make graduation remarks. (Fraser was second in his class at that time.) His parents appealed the school's disciplinary action. The Washington Supreme Court agreed that his free speech rights had been violated. The school board then appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Decision
The Court had earlier held, in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School Board, that students do not shed their constitutional rights at the school gate. In that case, the Court said that the First Amendment gave students the right to wear black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War.

In the Bethel case, however, the Court upheld the school district. The Court held, by a 7-2 margin, that school officials acted within the Constitution by disciplining Fraser. Chief Justice Burger wrote for the majority. He pointed out that there was a huge difference between the protest in Tinker, which dealt with a major issue of public policy, and the lewdness of Fraser's speech. "The purpose of public education in America is to teach fundamental values," he wrote. "These fundamental values…must…include consideration of the political sensibilities of other students."

Burger conceded that the First Amendment might permit the use of an offensive form of expression by an adult making a political point, but "the same latitude of expression is not permitted to children in a public school."

Justices Stevens and Marshall dissented. Stevens wrote, "I believe a strong presumption in favor of free expression should apply whenever an issue of this kind is arguable."

The Impact of the Decision
Along with Hazelwood School District et al. v. Kuhlmeier et al (1988), a case involving a school district that censored a student newspaper, the Bethel case shows the Court re-examining the issue of student expression in the schools and finding that certain limits on expression are permitted by the First Amendment.

Find Out
Do some research on the following cases, including familiarizing yourself with the majority opinions in each and the dissents. If you were a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, how would you have decided these cases?

  • Tinker v. Des Moines
  • Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier
How would you have decided Bethel v. Fraser? Explain your reasoning.

Supplemental Resources
Online Conversation with the plaintiffs of Tinker v. Des Moines
Supreme Court Preview: Cases of Interest to the School Community

Student Central | Key Supreme Court Cases