Culture

Legal Brief: Bethel School District v. Fraser, 478 U.S. 675

Facts of the Case

Matthew Fraser gave a speech at a school assembly that was filled with sexual innuendo, but not obscenity, prompting disciplinary action from the administration—he was suspended for three days.

The Vote

The court’s 7 to 2 decision reversed the Court of Appeals verdict uphold the suspension, saying that the school district’s policy did not violate the First Amendment.

The Law and/or Constitutional Provisions at Issue

The First Amendment, as applied through the Fourteenth, permits a public school to punish a student for giving a lewd and indecent, but not obscene, speech at a school assembly. Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded.

The Legal Questions

Building on Tinker, the question now under consideration was whether or not sexually vulgar speech is constitutionally protected.

The Opinion of the Court

Though the Court distinguished its 1969 decision “Tinker v. Des Moines”, which upheld the right for students to express themselves where their words are non-disruptive and could not be seen as connected with the school, the ruling in Fraser can be seen as a limitation on the scope of that ruling, prohibiting certain styles of expression that are sexually vulgar.

Concurring/Dissenting Opinions

It does not follow, however, that simply because the use of an offensive form of expression may not be prohibited to adults making what the speaker considers a political point, the same latitude must be permitted to children in a public school. New Jersey v. TLO reaffirmed that the constitutional rights of students in public school are not automatically coextensive with the rights of adults in other settings. Judge Newman expressed “the First Amendment gives a high school student the classroom right to wear Tinker’s armband, but not Cohen’s jacket.”

Evaluation of the Case

This case limits the freedom of speech of students, with the caveat that the content may not be lewd or of sexual nature. This is a crack in the first amendment rights of students and provides the fissure which can lead to further erosion of these rights.

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