Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser, 478 U.S. 675; 106 S. Ct. 3159; 92 L. Ed. 2d 549 (1986)

Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser, 478 U.S. 675; 106 S. Ct. 3159; 92 L. Ed. 2d 549 (1986)

Facts—Fraser, a student at Bethel High School in Pierce County, Washing- ton, delivered a sexually suggestive speech in nominating a fellow student for an office. Fraser was subsequently suspended from school and removed from the list of those giving graduation speeches. The U.S. District Court ruled in Fraser’s favor, and the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.

Questions—(a) Did the First Amendment protect Fraser’s suggestive speech to a school-age audience?

(b) Did the school deny Fraser due process in punishing him?

Decisions—(a) No; (b) No.

ReasonsJ. Rehnquist (7–2). In Tinker v. Des Moines (1969), the Supreme Court recognized that “students do not ‘shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.’” Still, schools are designed to prepare students for citizenship, and offensive words that adults might be permitted to utter elsewhere are not necessarily acceptable in a school setting. Fraser’s speech was directed to an audience consisting of younger students, and led to some confusion and disorder. Although they did not tell him the specific consequences, teachers had warned Fraser before- hand that his speech was inappropriate. Schools need flexibility in meting out punishments, and “Two days’ suspension from school does not rise to the level of a penal sanction calling for the full panoply of procedural due process protections applicable to a criminal prosecution.”

J. Brennan’s concurrence stressed that the decision was limited to restrict- ing speech in high school settings that school officials considered to be dis- ruptive; Brennan saw no evidence that the school authorities penalized Fraser “because they disagreed with the views he sought to express.” J. Marshall argued in dissent that the school had “failed to demonstrate that respondent’s remarks were indeed disruptive.” J. Stevens further argued in dissent that the school had not given Fraser “fair notice of the scope of the prohibition and the consequences of its violation,” and that courts closer to the situation were better judges of the appropriateness of the speech than was the U.S. Supreme Court.

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