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Home Civics Free Speech History Bethel v. Fraser and Morse v. Frederick: Limiting the Right

Bethel v. Fraser and Morse v. Frederick: Limiting the Right

  • In 1986 case Bethel v. Fraser, Supreme Court ruled that First Amendment did not protect disruptive or offensive student speech
  • In 2007 case Morse v. Frederick, Supreme Court ruled that a school could discipline a student for unfurling an offensive banner ("Bong Hits 4 Jesus") across the street from a school event

In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled in Bethel School District v. Fraser that the First Amendment did not protect high school students from punishment for disruptive or offensive speech in school. The particular disruptive and offensive speech in question was an off-color nomination address delivered during a 1983 student body election in a Washington high school; a student named Matthew Fraser began his brief speech in favor of a friend's candidacy for A.S.B. vice-president by saying, "I know a man who is firm—he's firm in his pants...." Things only went downhill from there, and when the speech ended, Fraser found himself suspended from school for two days for disruptive behavior. With backing from the ACLU, Fraser took the case to court, arguing that his rights to free speech had been violated. But in Bethel the Supreme Court rejected Fraser's argument that the First Amendment protected his innuendo-laced commentary, ruling that the school had every right to restrict "offensively lewd and indecent" speech that disrupted the learning environment.63 Bethel thus began rolling back the liberal conception of student freedom of expression established in Tinker.

In 2007, the more restrictive Bethel standard was reaffirmed and strengthened by the Court's decision in Morse v. Frederick, a case that confirmed an Alaska school principal's right to discipline a student who unfurled a large banner reading "BONG HiTS 4 JESUS" just across the street from his high school during a school-sanctioned event. The Morse case found no clear consensus in the Supreme Court, resulting in five separate opinions. The most hilarious is surely Justice John Paul Stevens's lengthy meditation on whether "BONG HiTS 4 JESUS" ought to be viewed as a subversive pro-drug message or merely goofy adolescent gibberish; the most startling, on the other hand, must be Justice Clarence Thomas's flat assertion that "the First Amendment, as originally understood, does not protect student speech in public schools," an assertion rooted in Thomas's apparent approval of a pre-Tinker learning environment in which "teachers taught, and students listened. Teachers commanded, and students obeyed."64

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