On this day in 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a student’s claim that school officials violated his First Amendment rights when they disciplined him for giving a speech filled with sexual innuendo before a school assembly.
The student, Matthew Fraser, decided to enliven his speech in support of a candidate for the student government of Bethel High School (located in Spanaway, Washington) by describing him as “firm in his pants,” “a man who takes his point and pounds it in,” and someone who will “take an issue and nail it to the wall.”
School officials suspended Fraser for three days and told him they were removing his name from a list of candidates for speaker at graduation. They based their punishment on a student handbook rule that prohibited conduct that substantially interferes with education, including “obscene” language. Fraser’s appeal to the school board was unsuccessful, but he had better fortunes in federal court. A federal district court held that the discipline infringed his First Amendment rights and enjoined the school to allow him, if elected, to speak at graduation. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.
Not amused by Fraser’s creativity was Chief Justice Warren Burger, who was presiding over his final decision day at the Supreme Court (he would retire before the next term began). In his majority opinion in Bethel School District No. 403. v. Fraser, he denied Fraser’s First Amendment claim and overturned the appeals court’s ruling. The speech at issue was “lewd and obscene,” revolving around “an elaborate, graphic, and explicit sexual metaphor,” Burger wrote. Although the Court, in its decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, had recognized that students retain First Amendment protections when they cross the schoolhouse gate, Burger distinguished Tinker. That case involved a “students’ right to engage in a nondisruptive, passive expression of a political viewpoint.” (Tinker involved a student wearing a black armband in protest of the Vietnam War.) This case, by contrast, involved the “use of vulgar and offensive terms in public discourse,” and the “determination of what manner of speech in the classroom or in school assembly is inappropriate properly rests with the school board.” The First Amendment, Burger wrote, “does not prevent the school officials from determining that to permit a vulgar and lewd speech such as respondent’s would undermine the school’s basic educational mission.”
Justices Thurgood Marshall and John Paul Stevens dissented. In his brief dissent, Marshall noted that the school had not sufficiently demonstrated that the speech was disruptive to the school’s educational mission. Stevens argued that the school policy did not obviously prohibit Fraser’s speech and the school had not given him sufficient notice that his words would carry such harsh consequences. “A strong presumption in favor of free expression should apply whenever an issue of this kind is arguable,” Stevens concluded.