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Bethel School District No. v. Fraser (403 )

Jeff Held Firm Convictions, Harsh Punishments For "obscene" Language, Students Are Persons Too


Bethel School District in Pierce County, Washington State


Matthew Fraser, a student at Bethel High School

Petitioner's Claim

School authorities should be permitted to discipline students that use language those authorities consider offensive.

Chief Lawyers for Petitioner

William A. Coats, Clifford D. Foster, Jr.

Chief Lawyers for Respondent

Jeffrey T. Haley and Charles S. Sims

Justices for the Court

Harry A. Blackmun, William J. Brennan, Jr., Warren E. Burger (writing for the Court), Sandra Day O'Connor, Lewis F. Powell, Jr., William H. Rehnquist, Byron R. White

Justices Dissenting

Thurgood Marshall, John Paul Stevens


Washington, D.C.

Date of Decision

7 July 1986


The First Amendment did not prevent school authorities from disciplining Matthew Fraser for giving an "offensively lewd and indecent speech." School disciplinary codes only have to describe offenses in general terms; they need not be as detailed as a criminal code, which imposes harsh punishments.


Bethel was only the second case dealing with the legal rights of students. The Court ruled that students do not enjoy the full protection accorded to adults. Schools may limit student speech both to prevent disruption and also to instill fundamental values.

Related Cases

  • Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969).


Epstein, Lee, and Thomas G. Walker. Constitutional Law for a Changing America: Rights, Liberties, and Justice. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1995.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1981 to 1988