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Read the following edited U. S. Supreme Court case regarding student speech at a school assembly. Write a one-page legal brief based on your reading of the case. Use an abbreviated format of: Case, Citation, Facts of the Case, Question, Rulings, Rationale, and Implications. A sample of a case brief is located on page 28 of the Stader book.
SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
478 U.S. 675 (1986)
Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser
CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.
We granted certiorari to decide whether the First Amendment prevents a school district from disciplining a high school student for giving a lewd speech at a school assembly.
On April 26, 1983, respondent Matthew N. Fraser, a student at Bethel High School in Pierce
County, Washington, delivered a speech nominating a fellow student for student elective office. Approximately 600 high school students, many of whom were 14-year-olds, attended the assembly. Students were required to attend the assembly or to report to the study hall.
The assembly was part of a school-sponsored educational program in self-government.
Students who elected not to attend the assembly were required to report to study hall. During the entire speech, Fraser referred to his candidate in terms of an elaborate, graphic, and explicit sexual metaphor.
Two of Fraser’s teachers, with whom he discussed the contents of his speech in advance, informed him that the speech was “inappropriate and that he probably should not deliver it,”
App. 30, and that his delivery of the speech might have “severe consequences.” During Fraser’s delivery of the speech, a school counselor observed the reaction of students to the speech. Some students hooted and yelled; some by gestures graphically simulated the sexual activities pointedly alluded to in respondent’s speech. Other students appeared to be bewildered and embarrassed by the speech. One teacher reported that, on the day following the speech, she found it necessary to forgo a portion of the scheduled class lesson in order to discuss the speech with the class.
A Bethel High School disciplinary rule prohibiting the use of obscene language in the school provides: Conduct which materially and substantially interferes with the educational process is prohibited, including the use of obscene, profane language or gestures.
The morning after the assembly, the Assistant Principal called Fraser into her office and notified him that the school considered his speech to have been a violation of this rule. Fraser was presented with copies of five letters submitted by teachers, describing his conduct at the assembly; he was given a chance to explain his conduct and he admitted to having given the speech described and that he deliberately used sexual innuendo in the speech. Fraser was then informed that he would be suspended for three days, and that his name would be removed from the list of candidates for graduation speaker at the school’s commencement exercises.
Fraser sought review of this disciplinary action through the School District’s grievance procedures. The hearing officer determined that the speech given by respondent was “indecent, lewd, and offensive to the modesty and decency of many of the students and faculty in attendance at the assembly.” The examiner determined that the speech fell within the ordinary meaning of “obscene,” as used in the disruptive conduct rule, and affirmed the discipline in its entirety. Fraser served two days of his suspension, and was allowed to return to school on the third day.
Fraser then brought this action in the United States District Court for the Western District of
Washington. Respondent alleged a violation of his First Amendment right to freedom of speech. District Court held that the school’s sanctions violated respondent’s right to freedom of speech under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the judgment of the District Court, holding that respondent’s speech was indistinguishable from the protest armband in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School Dist. The court explicitly rejected the School District’s argument that the speech, unlike the passive conduct of wearing a black armband, had a disruptive effect on the educational process.
We granted certiorari, 474 U.S. 814 (1985). We reverse.
This Court acknowledged in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School Dist. That students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” It is against this background that we turn to consider the level of First Amendment protection accorded to Fraser’s utterances and actions before an official high school assembly The First Amendment guarantees wide freedom in matters of adult public discourse. A sharply divided Court upheld the right to express an anti-draft viewpoint in a public place, albeit in terms highly offensive to most citizens. 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. 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. In New Jersey v. T.L.O.(1985), we reaffirmed that the constitutional rights of students in public school are not automatically coextensive with the rights of adults in other settings.
Surely it is a highly appropriate function of public school education to prohibit the use of vulgar and offensive terms in public discourse.
The pervasive sexual innuendo in Fraser’s speech was plainly offensive to both teachers and students — indeed, to any mature person. By glorifying male sexuality, and in its verbal content, the speech was acutely insulting to teenage girl students. The speech could well be seriously damaging to its less mature audience, many of whom were only 14 years old and on the threshold of awareness of human sexuality. Some students were reported as bewildered by the speech and the reaction of mimicry it provoked.
We hold that petitioner School District acted entirely within its permissible authority in imposing sanctions upon Fraser in response to his offensively lewd and indecent speech. Unlike the sanctions imposed on the students wearing armbands in Tinker, the penalties imposed in this case were unrelated to any political viewpoint. The First Amendment does not prevent the school officials from determining that to permit a vulgar and lewd speech such as Fraser’s would undermine the school’s basic educational mission. A high school assembly or classroom is no place for a sexually explicit monologue directed towards an unsuspecting audience of teenage students. Accordingly, it was perfectly appropriate for the school to disassociate itself to make the point to the pupils that vulgar speech and lewd conduct is wholly inconsistent with the “fundamental values” of public school education.
The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit is Reversed.
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