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Bethel School Dist. No. 403 v. Fraser, 478 U.S. 675 (1986)

Facts:
A public high school student delivered a nominating speech on behalf of another student at a student assembly. The speech contained elaborate and immature sexual innuendo. The school suspended the student for violating the school’s no-disruption rule, which prohibited “obscene, profane language.” The student contended that the suspension violated his First Amendment rights because his speech caused no disruption of school activities within the meaning of Tinker.

Issue:
Whether school officials may prohibit a vulgar and lewd student speech at a student assembly even if the speech does not create a substantial disruption.

Holding:
In a 7-2 decision, the Court held that school officials may prohibit student speech before a student assembly that is vulgar, lewd and plainly offensive.

Reasoning:
Public school officials have a responsibility to “inculcate values” into students. “Surely, it is a highly appropriate function of public school education to prohibit the use of vulgar and offensive terms in public discourse.” The vulgar sexual allusions of the student in this case differ markedly from the pure political message of the black-armband case of Tinker. School officials were not censoring speech based on viewpoint. Rather, they were punishing the student for using vulgar and lewd terms at a student assembly.

Majority:
“The undoubted freedom to advocate unpopular and controversial views in schools and classrooms must be balanced against the society's countervailing interest in teaching students the boundaries of socially appropriate behavior. Even the most heated political discourse in a democratic society requires consideration for the personal sensibilities of the other participants and audiences.” (Chief Justice Warren Burger)

Dissent:
“It does seem to me, however, that if a student is to be punished for using offensive speech, he is entitled to fair notice of the scope of the prohibition and the consequences of its violation. The interest in free speech protected by the First Amendment and the interest in fair procedure protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment combine to require this result.” (Justice John Paul Stevens)

Read more about this case at firstamendmentcenter.org:



Last updated: Friday, November 21, 2014 | 08:34:21