Bethel v. Fraser (1986)
By The Bill of Rights Institute
Landmark Supreme Court Cases
1 As the school year comes to a close and
students are giving student government speeches and commencement addresses, we
spotlight the landmark student expression case Bethel v. Fraser (1986). In this
case, the Court considered whether the First Amendment protected a
student-government nomination speech filled with sexual innuendo.
2 High school student Matthew Fraser
approached the podium at the front of his public schools auditorium. He gazed
at the crowd of 600 of his schoolmates while readying a printout of his speech.
Matthew was a little nervous. He felt nervous because hed shown the speech to
two teachers at his school, and they both told him he probably should not
deliver it. They told him the speech was inappropriate. One of his teachers even
warned him he might get into severe trouble for reading it. He decided to read
it anyway.
3 Matthews speech was filled with sexual
innuendo. When he delivered the speech, many students called out, gestured, and
laughed, while others looked confused and embarrassed. After the speech,
Matthew was told he had violated the schools conduct code, which said: Conduct
which materially and substantially interferes with the educational process is
prohibited, including the use of obscene, profane language or gestures. He was
suspended for two days, and was told he would not be allowed to speak at the
schools graduate ceremony.
4 Matthew believed that he had a First
Amendment right to give his speech, and sued the school. The First Amendment
states in part, Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of
speech… Matthew claimed that his public school, as an instrument of the
state, had violated his right to free speech. The school argued that Matthews
speech had clearly violated the school conduct code, and that the First
Amendment did not protect Matthews words in public school.
5 The case eventually went to the Supreme
Court. The Supreme Court ruled that the school had not violated Matthews First
Amendment rights, and that schools do not have to tolerate lewd and obscene
speech. The Court held, The process of educating our youth for citizenship in
public schools is not confined to books, the curriculum, and the civics class;
schools must teach by example the shared values of a civilized social order…The
schools, as instruments of the state, may determine that the essential lessons
of civil, mature conduct cannot be conveyed in a school that tolerates lewd,
indecent, or offensive speech and conduct such as that indulged in by this
confused boy.
Free Speech
Op-ed Prompt
Student Free Speech: Culminating Writing Task
Question at Issue: To what extent should students have the right to freedom of speech in school?
Culminating Writing Prompt: Choose one of the student free speech cases you have identified to research and write an op-ed piece for your school newspaper stating the extent to which you agree or disagree with the outcome of the case. Make sure your argument is grounded in case law precedents. In other words, refer to the arguments and decisions that were made in cases that were decided earlier. You may also include personal experiences or examples from your own school to illustrate the points you make in your argument. Use the success criteria to guide your planning and writing.
As you write your op-ed, consider the guiding questions about your rhetorical situation. Then fill in the different parts of the PAPA square for yourself.
Rhetorical Purpose:
What do you hope to accomplish by writing your op-ed?
What will be your major claims?
What evidence will you use to support your claims? How valid is your evidence?
How will you respond to those who disagree with you?
Imagine an audience for your op-ed. Do you want it to be published in your newspaper? In your local newspaper? In a national newspaper?
How will you convince your readers that your views about this topic are credible?
What kind of language and style will you want to use so your audience knows you are reliable?
How will you appeal to your readers emotions on the topic?
How will you persuade your readers that your topic is timely?

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