On April 26, 1983, Matthew Fraser, a student at Bethel High School in Bethel, Washington, delivered a speech nominating a fellow student for a student elective office to his fellow high school mates. The assembly was part of a school-sponsored educational program in self government. During the entire speech, Fraser referred to his candidate in terms of 'elaborate, graphic, and explicit sexual metaphor.' However, no obscene language was used. Fraser discussed his speech with three of his teachers. Two of the teachers testified at the trial that they informed Matthew the speech was 'inappropriate and that he probably should not deliver it.' They also mentioned that the speech might have 'severe consequences,' but none of the three suggested that the speech might violate a school rule.
So Matthew gave his speech, during which a school counselor observed the reaction of students. Some hooted and yelled; others appeared to be bewildered and embarrassed by the speech. A Bethel High School disciplinary rule prohibited the use of obscene language in the school: Conduct which materially and substantially interferes with the educational process is prohibited, including the use of obscene, profane language or gestures. The morning after the assembly, the assistant principal called Matthew into her office and notified him that the school considered his speech to have been a violation of this rule. The assistant principal informed Matthew that he would be suspended for three days and would be ineligible as a candidate for graduation speaker at the school's commencement exercises. Matthew went to the school's hearing officer for a review of the disciplinary action.
The examiner determined that the speech fell within the ordinary meaning of 'obscene,' as used in the disruptive-conduct rule, and affirmed the discipline in its entirety. Fraser served two days of his suspension, and was allowed to return to school on the third day. Matthew's father appealed the school district's actions on behalf of his son to the federal district court. He alleged a violation of his First Amendment right to freedom of speech and sought both injunctive relief and monetary damages. The District Court held that the school's sanctions violated respondent's right to freedom of speech under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, that the school's disruptive-conduct rule is unconstitutionally vague and over broad, and that the removal of respondent's name from the graduation speaker's list violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because the disciplinary rule makes no mention of such removal as a possible sanction. The District Court awarded respondent $ 278 in damages, $ 12, 750 in litigation costs and attorney's fees, and enjoined the School District from preventing respondent from speaking at the commencement ceremonies.
The Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment of the District Court, rejecting the school district's argument that the speech had a disruptive effect on the educational process. The Court of Appeals also rejected the school district's argument that it had an interest in protecting an essentially captive audience of minors from lewd and indecent language in a setting sponsored by the school. The Court of Appeals rejected the school district's argument that, incident to its responsibility for the school curriculum, it had the power to control the language used to express ideas during a school-sponsored activity.