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Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser

    Brief Fact Summary. A student gave a nominating speech in a general school assembly that described another candidate with strong sexual metaphors.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. Schools may determine that certain modes of expression are inappropriate and subject the speech to sanctions.

    Facts. Fraser (Respondent) gave a speech nominating his friend for a student body office at the school assembly. He described his friend’s attributes by using sexually explicit metaphors. Although a teacher reviewed the speech, and the speaker was warned against giving the speech, Respondent chose to do it anyway. After the speech, one teacher complained that he had to interrupt his regular class to explain and review sections of the speech. Respondent was subsequently suspended from school for three days.

    Issue. Is a high school student’s lewd speech protected by the First Amendment?

    Held. No. The Court held that “[t]he undoubted freedom to advocate unpopular and controversial issues in schools and classrooms must be balanced against society’s countervailing interest in teaching students the boundaries of socially appropriate behavior.” Here, the student’s First Amendment rights were outweighed by the school’s interest in outweighing vulgar and lewd speech. The student’s interests were unrelated to any political viewpoint, i.e., they were content neutral.

    Dissent. The remarks by Respondent were not disruptive to the school’s operations and should not have been sanctioned.
    Concurrence. The speech was not lewd. However, the speech exceeds the permissible limits for this situation, a school assembly.

    Discussion. Because the speech was explicit in nature and required some explaining to the younger students, it disrupted the school’s daily activities. Furthermore, the majority determined that the role of schools is to teach socially appropriate behavior and speech. It is within the school’s sole discretion whether and how to punish such speech.


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