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Vulgar or Political?
The U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Bethel School District v. Fraser, 478 U.S. 675 (1986), was in regard to public schools and free speech, as established in the first Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This case emphasized the limitations on certain speech and freedom rights of students in public schools within the United States. Mathew Fraser, 17 years of age, was the plaintiff in the case and was accused of using vulgar and inappropriate language and sexual innuendos in a speech at a mandatory school assembly in the presence of minors. He was further punished with a two day suspension and then removed from the list of students eligible to make remarks at graduation. Following Fraser’s consequences his father filed suit in Federal District court, seeking a violation of the first Amendment right of free speech. The defendant, Bethel School District, stood by its decision for disciplinary actions as they said that Fraser’s speech disrupted education at the school. The Federal (U.S.) District court that the case was brought to trial in ruled in favor of Fraser and the Bethel School District further appealed the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals hoping to get the ruling reversed in their opinion that Fraser was at a school- sponsored activity under the authority of the school. However, the ruling held and was not reversed until brought to the Supreme Court on Monday, July 7, 1986.
The Federal District Court ruled that the Bethel school’s sanctions violated the 1st Amendment and the disciplinary actions taken upon Fraser also violated the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment. This was equally agreed upon by the U.S. Court of Appeals as they affirmed the earlier court’s ruling. However, as the case was then taken on by the Supreme Court it was reversed, stating that the 1st Amendment didn’t prohibit schools from banning vulgar language and the lewd speech disrupted the learning atmosphere. The past cases of Tinker v. Des Moines, 1969, and Goss v. Lopez, 1975, served as helpful precedent in the case as the Tinker v. Des Moines decision guaranteed the 1st Amendment rights of students – “freedom of expression” – so long as there was no threat of “substantial disruption” of education. This helped the majority opinion decide for the Bethel School District. While the Goss v. Lopez decision which stated that some adult due process should be provided to juveniles facing severe disciplinary action also helped Fraser with his court case to begin with. This was also the time where social issues among teenagers impacted the case. Teenagers always seem to have their own form of language amongst each other and their own way of communicating through that language. Socially, students of public schools during the time of the case were simply “testing the waters” and finding out just how strict their limitations at school were.
Constitutional questions came into play with the development of the case: Was there limits to the Tinker rule, and if so could they be applied to this case? Was Fraser even within his rights to commence the speech? Were the students granted the same rights as adults? And perhaps the most important, does the First Amendment stop a school district from distributing punishment to a high school student for giving a vulgar speech at a mandatory in-school assembly? The Courts had to review the First Amendment and determine whether to strictly or