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Law School Case Brief

Bethel Sch. Dist. v. Fraser - 478 U.S. 675, 106 S. Ct. 3159 (1986)

Rule:

A school district acts entirely within its permissible authority in imposing sanctions upon a student in response to his offensively lewd and indecent speech when the penalties imposed are unrelated to any political viewpoint. The First Amendment does not prevent school officials from determining that to permit a vulgar and lewd speech 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 is 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. 

Facts:

A public high school student, plaintiff M.N.F., a minor, delivered a speech nominating a fellow student for a student elective office at a voluntary assembly that was held during school hours. The school was operated by defendant Bethel School District ("District"). The assembly was part of a school-sponsored educational program in self-government and was attended by approximately 600 students, many of whom were 14-year-olds. During the entire speech, M.N.F. referred to his candidate in terms of an elaborate, graphic, and explicit sexual metaphor. Some of the students at the assembly hooted and yelled during the speech, some mimicked the sexual activities alluded to in the speech, and others appeared to be bewildered and embarrassed. Prior to delivering the speech, M.N.F. discussed it with several teachers, two of whom advised him that it was inappropriate and should not be given. The morning after the assembly, the assistant principal called M.N.F. into her office and notified him that the school considered his speech to be a violation of the school's "disruptive-conduct rule." The rule prohibited conduct that substantially interfered with the educational process, including the use of obscene, profane language or gestures. M.N.F. was given copies of teacher reports of his conduct, and was given a chance to explain his conduct. After he admitted that he deliberately used sexual innuendo in the speech, he was 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. Review of the disciplinary action through the District's grievance procedures resulted in affirmance of the discipline, but M.N.F. was allowed to return to school after serving only two days of his suspension. M.N.F., by his father as guardian ad litem, filed suit in federal district court, alleging a violation of his First Amendment right to freedom of speech and sought injunctive relief and damages under 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983. The district court held that the school's sanctions violated the First Amendment, that the school's disruptive-conduct rule was unconstitutionally vague and overbroad, and that the removal of M.N.F.'s name from the graduation speaker's list violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The court awarded M.N.F. monetary relief and enjoined the District from preventing him from speaking at the commencement ceremonies. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed.

Issue:

Did the District violate M.N.F.'s First Amendment rights by suspending him from school for delivering an allegedly lewd speech at a school function?

Answer:

No.

Conclusion:

The Supreme Court of the United States reversed, holding that the First Amendment did not prevent the District from suspending M.N.F. since the penalties imposed were unrelated to any political viewpoint. Further, the First Amendment did not prevent the District from determining that to permit M.N.F.'s speech would undermine the school's basic educational mission.

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