Essay on Bethel School District v. Fraser

Published: 2021/11/05
Number of words: 1555


The case of Bethel School District v. Fraser presents a landmark ruling in the history of education and institutions of learning. Fraser, a high school student at the school, delivered a speech that nominated a fellow student to an elective office. Fraser was a highly rated student in the institution, earning a nomination by his friends to speak during their graduation ceremony. Following his speech during assembly in April 1983, Fraser was suspended from school and striped off the chance to speak during graduation (Thibodeaux, 1987). He was suspended from school based on the use of obscene language that elicited mixed reactions from both learners and teachers. Fraser sued the school for violating his right to freedom of speech, according to the First Amendment. The court ruled in favor of the student, explaining that students are also citizens who are protected by the constitution. The student was accorded over $13,000 as damages by the United States District Court. Dissatisfied, the school decided to appeal to the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which affirmed the earlier ruling on the case. Bethel School District pleaded with the Supreme Court to consider the matter. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the school with a 7-2 vote. In its ruling, the Chief Justice delivered a strong opinion on how schools in the society should play a role in shaping moral values. The two judges who dissented had found no basis for allegations that the school had for Fraser. It is crucial to connect the legal concepts of the case and how it has impacted learning and policymaking in institutions.

Literature Review

In April 1983, Mathew Fraser, a student at the Bethel School District, gave a speech during assembly, in which 600 students were in attendance. The speech was nominating a colleague, Jeff Kuhlman, to the position of a student vice-president in what turned out to be an obscenity. His speech contained sexual metaphors and feelings that the school considered a violation of education and learning. Those who attended the assembly included some who are as young as fourteen. Some students became embarrassed by the words that Fraser used to describe Kuhlman’s capabilities in leadership. Before his speech, Fraser had asked a few teachers to give their views on the content before he could deliver (Thibodeaux, 1987). Some argued that it could attract severe consequences, while others termed it inappropriate. One teacher had told him that the speech would cause problems in that it can make many raise their eyebrows. Notably, none of the teachers said to him that it could attract a penalty as it violated school policies.

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A day later, Fraser was summoned by the administration and notified of what was in store for him. According to the administration, his speech had violated acceptable standards of language use within an institution of learning. Bethel School’s handbook had forbidden any students from disrupting learning by use of profane language. Fraser admitted to using sexual references to make a speech during a school assembly. The school decided to suspend Fraser for three days and stripped his name off those to speak during graduation (Hassenpflug, 2016).

Upon agreeing with parents, Fraser filed a lawsuit against the institution for violating his right to freedom of speech as per the First Amendment (Chmara, 2015). The United States District Court ruled in favor of the student saying that school sanctions violated his right to freedom, a ruling, which was affirmed by the 9TH Circuit Court of Appeals. The school appealed to the Supreme Court, which considered the case and reaffirmed the decisions that had been made earlier. Two judges dissented, citing lack of substantial evidence that Fraser had used vulgar language while making a public speech in school (Russo, 2019). To the rest of the judges, learning institutions should be able to come up with policies that nurture good behavior in students. As such, the school had not violated the First Amendment right to freedom of speech by suspending the student. Failure of institutions to guide students on how to behave or use respectable language in public can lead to dire consequences. As such, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Bethel School, which allowed many institutions to form policies that do not violate student’s rights but regulate the use of their freedom.

The issue in the case of Bethel District School v. Fraser is to whether suspending the student was justified. To the student, his suspension from school on allegations that he had used obscene language infringes his right to freedom of speech as per the First Amendment. The school, on the other hand, viewed the matter form a different angle, implying that he had used profane language, which is against the school policies (Powell Jr, 1985). It is only fair that institutions are given the right to formulate strategies that guide student behavior within the learning environment. Limiting schools to use similar approaches to controlling behavior might attract dire consequences in the society. Education has to be delivered decently and morally in a bid to ensure the young are not psychologically affected.

Summary of Arguments

The first argument that can be presented following the case is that the First Amendment did not restrict schools from coming up with policies that govern behavior. Instead, individuals should use their freedom of speech conservatively, depending on the circumstance that is in question (Chmara, 2015). For instance, a learning environment can impact someone’s psychological behavior since students learn from each other. As such, it is of the essence to have a legal framework as per an institution to help control negative behavior. Absurd language is not allowed in most learning institutions as it impacts others negatively. The court should also play a key role in assisting institutions in maintaining and keeping conformity standards as per requirements. To fulfill their objectives and protect the interests of students, schools have the right to determine modes of language or expression that apply. The case left a mark in the education sector as institutions apply the theory for better functionality.

Second, learning institutions have the right to instill proper civic values in students who are learning. Essential pre-requisites in a democratic society include tolerance of divergent views and mutual understanding of rules of conformity. As such, institutions have the right to discipline lousy behavior or reward good behavior. Learners might not be in a position to determine whether language is appropriate or obscene (Russo, 2019). As such it is the role of an institution to guide learners on what language is appropriate for use in school. In psychology, learning institutions shape fundamental values of habits in children within the society. As such, an insight into the case of Bethel District School is helps many understand why various institutions impose rules to guide students on acceptable standards of behavior. In a school environment, the right to freedom must be balanced with acceptable standards, considering that there are other students in the institution. It is the function of public school education to ban the use of obscene language in a learning setting.

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Third, there is a need for institutions to protect young learners by imposing policies that discourage obscenity. The sexual innuendo that Fraser used in his speech proves to be vulgar, especially that there are learners who were young in the institution. The regulations that prohibit students and teachers from using profane language serve as an early warning to everyone. The idea that he had a warning prior to his speech gives the school a right to sanction him. Education plays a significant role in teaching people how to be good citizens, giving them the right to sanction learners who seem to have no respect for school policy.


To sum it up, the Bethel School District v. Fraser set a precedent that many legal suits pertaining to education can follow. To the school, Fraser had violated school policies that forbade him from using vulgar language. On the other hand, Fraser felt his right to freedom of speech had been violated by suspending him. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the school, stressing the essence of learning institutions teaching learners how to become good citizens. The fact that learning institutions need to shape morality in the society justifies the need for them to develop strategies that curb the use of obscene language. There is a close correlation between learning and psychological impacts that it can have on learners. As such, the school had not violated the First Amendment right to freedom of speech by suspending the student.


Chmara, T. (2015). Do Minors Have First Amendment Rights in Schools?. Knowledge Quest44(1), 8-13.

Hassenpflug, A. (2016). The Peril of Ignoring Middle School Student Speech Rights. The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas89(1), 23-27.

Powell Jr, L. F. (1985). Bethel School district No. 403 v. Fraser.

Russo, C. J. (2019). Tinker at 50: Is School Speech Still Free? (Doctoral dissertation, University of Dayton).

Thibodeaux, T. (1987). Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser: The Supreme Court Supports School in Sanctioning Student for Sexual Innuendo in Speech. Loy. L. Rev.33, 516.

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