478 U.S. 675 (1986), 84-1667, Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser

Docket Nº:No. 84-1667
Citation:478 U.S. 675, 106 S.Ct. 3159, 92 L.Ed.2d 549, 54 U.S.L.W. 5054
Party Name:Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser
Case Date:July 07, 1986
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 675

478 U.S. 675 (1986)

106 S.Ct. 3159, 92 L.Ed.2d 549, 54 U.S.L.W. 5054

Bethel School District No. 403

v.

Fraser

No. 84-1667

United States Supreme Court

July 7, 1986

Argued March 3, 1986

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR

THE NINTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Respondent public high school student (hereafter respondent) delivered a speech nominating a fellow student for a student elective office at a voluntary assembly that was held during school hours as part of a school-sponsored educational program in self-government, and that was attended by approximately 600 students, many of whom were 14-year-olds. During the entire speech, respondent 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, respondent 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 respondent into her office and notified him that the school considered his speech to have been a violation of the school's "disruptive conduct rule," which prohibited conduct that substantially interfered with the educational process, including the use of obscene, profane language or gestures. Respondent 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 petitioner School District's grievance procedures resulted in affirmance of the discipline, but respondent was allowed to return to school after serving only two days of his suspension. Respondent, by his father (also a respondent) as guardian ad litem, then filed suit in Federal District Court, alleging a violation of his First Amendment right to freedom of speech and seeking injunctive relief and damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The 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 respondent's name from the graduation speaker's list violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The court awarded respondent monetary relief and enjoined the

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School District from preventing him from speaking at the commencement ceremonies. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held:

1. The First Amendment did not prevent the School District from disciplining respondent for giving the offensively lewd and indecent speech at the assembly. Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School Dist., 393 U.S. 503, distinguished. Under the First Amendment, the use of an offensive [106 S.Ct. 3161] form of expression may not be prohibited to adults making what the speaker considers a political point, but it does not follow that the same latitude must be permitted to children in a public school. It is a highly appropriate function of public school education to prohibit the use of vulgar and offensive terms in public discourse. Nothing in the Constitution prohibits the states from insisting that certain modes of expression are inappropriate and subject to sanctions. The inculcation of these values is truly the work of the school, and the determination of what manner of speech is inappropriate properly rests with the school board. First Amendment jurisprudence recognizes an interest in protecting minors from exposure to vulgar and offensive spoken language, FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U.S. 726, as well as limitations on the otherwise absolute interest of the speaker in reaching an unlimited audience where the speech is sexually explicit and the audience may include children. Ginsberg v. New York, 390 U.S. 629. Petitioner School District acted entirely within its permissible authority in imposing sanctions upon respondent in response to his offensively lewd and indecent speech, which had no claim to First Amendment protection. Pp. 680-686.

2. There is no merit to respondent's contention that the circumstances of his suspension violated due process because he had no way of knowing that the delivery of the speech would subject him to disciplinary sanctions. Given the school's need to be able to impose disciplinary sanctions for a wide range of unanticipated conduct disruptive of the educational process, the school disciplinary rules need not be as detailed as a criminal code which imposes criminal sanctions. The school disciplinary rule proscribing "obscene" language and the prespeech admonitions of teachers gave adequate warning to respondent that his lewd speech could subject him to sanctions. P. 686.

755 F.2d 1356, reversed.

BURGER, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, POWELL, REHNQUIST, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. BRENNAN J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 687. BLACKMUN, J. concurred in the result. MARSHALL, J., post, p. 690, and STEVENS, J., post, p. 691, filed dissenting opinions.

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BURGER, J., lead opinion

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.

I

A

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

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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." Id. at 61.

During Fraser's delivery of the speech, a school counselor observed the reaction of students to the speech. Some students [106 S.Ct. 3162] 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. Id. at 41-44.

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

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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.

B

Respondent, by his father as guardian ad litem, 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, and sought both injunctive relief and monetary damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The 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, that the school's disruptive conduct rule is unconstitutionally vague and overbroad, and that the removal of respondent's name from the graduation speaker's list violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because the disciplinary rule makes no mention of such removal as a possible sanction. The District Court awarded respondent $278 in damages, $12,750 in litigation costs and attorney's fees, and enjoined the School District from preventing respondent from speaking at the commencement ceremonies. Respondent, who had been elected graduation speaker by a write-in vote of his classmates, delivered a speech at the commencement ceremonies on June 8, 1983.

The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the judgment of the District Court, 755 F.2d 1356 (1985), holding that respondent's speech was indistinguishable from the protest...

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