U.S. Supreme Court Case: Bethel School District v. Fraser (1986)
The Supreme Court has a distinct process of deciding whether to hear a case that has been brought up to that level. Usually, a party seeking review in the U.S. Supreme Court will file a petition asking the Court to issue a writ of certiorari. This is basically a request that the Supreme Court review the case. This appeal will include a copy of the lower court’s opinion and a brief. A brief states why the Supreme Court should agree to review the decision. The other party may file a brief in opposition to the appeal.
The ‘Rule of Four’ controls matters when decision which issues the Supreme Court will hear. If four justices agree that a specific petition for a writ of certiorari should be granted, then the case will be placed on the Supreme Court docket and an order stating that certiorari has been granted will be issued. If four justices do not agree, then the Supreme Court will deny the petition, which is what happens more often than not. If four justices to agree, the grant will be issued. If granted, the Supreme Court requires the federal or state court to transmit the record of the case to the U.S. Supreme court for its review. In the words of the late William H. Rehnquist, former Chief Justice, the process of selecting which petitions to grant as being influenced by the justices’ views on three major factors: if the decision from one federal court of appeal is in conflict with the decisions of other circuits; the overall importance of the case; and whether the lower court’s decision may be wrong in light of previous U.S. Supreme Court opinions.
Once the Supreme Court accepts a case, it determines a date on which both sides’ lawyers will present oral arguments. As per rule, the justices consider cases in two week cycles from October to May. They hear oral argument in several cases for two weeks; then the justices recess for two weeks in order to consider those cases and to handle other court business.
While the court is hearing oral arguments, it convenes at 10 a.m. on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and sometimes Thursdays. At those sessions, which are open to the public, lawyers make their oral arguments. Their presentations are almost always limited to 30 minutes. Lawyers rely heavily on prepared briefs which they present to the court. These include all the relevant information which they want the justices to consider. Justices are also known for cutting off lawyers mid-sentence, so they try to leave time for questions at the end which cramps up things.
On Wednesdays and Fridays, the justices meet in conference. In complete secrecy, they consider the cases in which they have heard oral arguments for. The Chief Justice presides over the conference. He speaks first on each case to be considered and usually indicates how he intends to vote. Then each justice in order of seniority summarizes his or her views. After each justice speaks, the usually argue over certain points. About one third of the Supreme Court’s decisions are unanimous; however, many times their decisions are split.
When the chief justice is in the majority on a case, he assigns the Supreme Court’s opinion. If he is in the minority, the assignment is handled by the most senior justice on the majority side. The Court’s opinion is frequently dubbed the majority opinion. It announces the decision made and sets out the reasoning on which that decision was reached. Sometimes, one or more of the justices on the majority side will write their own concurring opinion, giving their own personal views on why the Court reached that decision. One or more dissenting opinions are often written too by minority justices who did not agree with the majority opinion.
Bethel School District v. Fraser (1986) was a case that reached the Supreme Court. Matthew Fraser was an exceptional student at Bethel High School in Pierce County, Washington. In April 1983, Fraser prepared to give a speech at a school assembly. The assembly was part of a school program to teach about government. In his speech, Fraser would nominate a fellow classmate, Jeff Kuhlman, as student vice-president. Fraser prepared a speech that referred to Kuhlman using many metaphors about male sexuality.
Before the assembly, Fraser shared his speech with three teachers. Each stated that he should not deliver the speech, but none told Fraser that the speech violated the student handbook. Fraser delivered his speech at the assembly on April 26, 1983. Six hundred students were in the audience, ages ranging from 14 to 18. During the speech, some students were reported to be hooting and yelling and some others were reported to be embarrassed. However, there was no evidence that the speech offended anyone.
Bethel High’s student handbook included a rule that prevented students from interrupting educating by using obscene or profane language. The day after the assembly, the assistant principal called Fraser into her office and told him that he had violated that rule.
Fraser admitted that he used sexual references in his speech. As a result, Bethel suspended Fraser for three days and removed his name from a list of candidates for graduation speaker (he was the salutatorian of his class). Fraser challenged his punishment, but a hearing officer approved it the actions taken by Bethel High School after deciding that Fraser’s speech was indecent.
Fraser sued Bethel High School in federal district court. He argued that the school violated the First Amendment by punishing him for his assembly speech. The district court agreed and awarded Fraser over $13,000 for damages and attorneys’ fees. The court also said that the Bethel School District could not prevent Fraser from being the graduation speaker. After being elected by his classmates, Fraser gave a graduation speech on June 8, 1983.
Meanwhile, Bethel School District appealed the case. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit approved the district court’s decision. It said that under Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969), schools cannot punish a student for speech unless he disrupts education. Even if Fraser’s speech was offensive, it did not disrupt learning at Bethel High. Bethel School District disagreed, and proceeded to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
With a 7’2 decision, the Supreme Court reversed and ruled in favor of Bethel School District. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger wrote the Court’s opinion. Justice Burger agreed that under Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969), the First Amendment protects students even when they are in school. However, Justice Burger said that one of the purposes of school is to teach students how to be good citizens. Part of being a good citizen is learning how to behave in public. Therefore, the freedom of speech in school must be balanced against the school’s need to teach socially appropriate behavior.
Justice Burger also agreed that the freedom of speech allows adults to use offensive language, even in public. He said, however, that students in school have less protection under the First Amendment than adults in public. Fraser’s speech about male sexuality may have offended teenage girls. It also may have caused problems for younger students who were just learning about sexuality. Justice Burger decided that Bethel High was allowed to punish Fraser to make the point that vulgar language is wrong under the values taught by public education.
Two justices dissented, meaning they disagreed with the Court’s decision. Justice Thurgood Marshall did not think that Fraser’s speech had disrupted learning at Bethel High. Justice John Paul Stevens agreed with Justice Marshall. Justice Stevens also thought that Fraser’s punishment was unfair because neither the student handbook nor the three teachers had warned Fraser that he could be suspended for giving his speech. Justice Stevens said that the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the Due Process Clause to be exact, prevents public schools from punishing students without fair warning. The Due Process Clause prevents state and local governments from violating a person’s right to life, liberty, and property.
Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School (1969) is the most similar Supreme Court case to Bethel School District v. Fraser (1986). In December 1965, a group of adults and school children gathered in Des Moines, Iowa. They met to discuss ways to voice their opposition to America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. They eventually decided to wear black armbands with the peace symbol for the remainder of the holiday season. They also decided to fast, meaning live without eating, on December 16 and on New Year’s Eve.
The students at the meeting included sixteen year old Christopher Eckhardt, fifteen year old John P. Tinker, and thirteen year old Mary Beth Tinker. Christopher and John attended high schools in Des Moines, and John’s sister Mary attended junior high school. They decided to join their parents by wearing black armbands and fasting too.
The principals of the Des Moines public schools learned about these plans. They were worried the protest would cause trouble because a former student who had been killed in Vietnam still had friends at one of the high schools. Some students said they would wear different colored armbands to support the war. To avoid any conflict, on December 14 the principals adopted a policy that any student wearing a black armband would be asked to remove it and would be suspended if he refused.
Christopher, John, and Mary knew about the new policy but decided to follow their plan. John and Mary wore their black armbands to school on December 16, and Christopher wore his the next day. Although the armbands did not disrupt school, all three students were suspended and told not to return until they removed the armbands. The students did not return until after New Year’s Day, when their protest ended.
Meanwhile, the students and their parents filed a lawsuit in federal district court. They asked the court to stop the schools from punishing them for wearing the black armbands. The district court dismissed the case, saying the schools were allowed to prevent disturbances. The students appealed, but the federal court of appeals approved the district court’s decision. They then took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court. They argued that the schools had violated their right to free speech.
With a 7’2 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the students. Writing for the Court, Justice Abe Fortas said wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War was a form of speech called symbolic speech. Symbolic speech conveys a message or idea with symbols or actions instead of words.
Justice Fortas said students have free speech rights under the First Amendment just like adults. Students in school as well as out of school are ‘persons’ under our Constitution. Students do not give up the freedom of speech when they go to school. Justice Fortas said this means schools can interfere with free speech only when it is necessary to prevent actual disruptions.
The evidence showed that the students had not caused any disruptions. Instead, they had made a peaceful protest against the Vietnam War. The schools stopped them because other students might not like the protest; but, the freedom of speech protects the right to say things other people might not like to hear. After all, these same schools let students wear buttons to support political campaigns, and even allowed one student to wear an Iron Cross, the symbol of the German Nazis from World War II. Justice Fortas said the freedom of speech prevented the schools from allowing some political speech but punishing Christopher, John, and Mary for their protest.
Justice Hugo Lafayette Black wrote a dissenting opinion. Justice Black said the First Amendment does not give people the freedom to say anything, anywhere, anytime. “Iowa’s public schools . . . are operated to give students an opportunity to learn, not to talk politics by actual speech, or by symbolic speech.” Justice Black thought schools should be allowed to prevent speech that interferes with the job of learning.
In conclusion, Bethel School District v. Fraser was a landmark Supreme Court case. It has forever determined that students in school have to be careful not to make speech that interferes with learning. If Fraser had not used vulgar language, this decision may not have been made yet. It has set the precedence for many following Supreme Court cases regarding the 1st and 14th Amendments.