On April 26, 1983, Matthew Fraser, a Spanaway, Washington, high school senior, gave a speech nominating classmate Jeff Kuhlman for Associated Student Body Vice President. The speech was filled with sexual innuendos, but not obscenity, prompting disciplinary action from the administration.
Fraser's speech was as follows:
"I know a man who is firm - he's firm in his pants, he's firm in his shirt, his character is firm - but most [of] all, his belief in you the students of Bethel, is firm. Jeff Kuhlman is a man who takes his point and pounds it in. If necessary, he'll take an issue and nail it to the wall. He doesn't attack things in spurts - he drives hard, pushing and pushing until finally - he succeeds. Jeff is a man who will go to the very end - even the climax, for each and every one of you. So please vote for Jeff Kuhlman, as he'll never come between us and the best our school can be [long pause after the word "come" on oral delivery, but no comma in the written version, according to Matthew N Fraser]"
After appealing through the grievance procedures of his school, he was still found to be in violation of a school policy against disruptive behavior. These grounds later evolved to include obscenity at trial, but obscenity, according to Fraser, was not listed as grounds for his punishment in his initial hearing with school vice-principal Christy Blair. Fraser was suspended from school for two days as a result, was prohibited from speaking at his graduation ceremony, and his name was stricken from the ballot used to elect three graduation speakers. Fraser nonetheless was selected by a write-in vote which placed him second overall among the top three finishers, although Bethel High School administrators refused to accept the write-in vote as a valid result, and continued to deny Fraser the opportunity to speak at graduation.
With approval from his parents and help from ACLU cooperating attorney Jeff Haley, Matt Fraser filed a lawsuit against the school authorities claiming a violation of his First Amendment right to free speech, and the United States District Court, Honorable Jack Tanner, ruled in his favor.
The school district then appealed to the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals which ruled in Fraser's favor with a broadly worded opinion. The school district asked the United States Supreme Court to consider the case and it agreed to do so. The US Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals in 7-2 vote to uphold the suspension, saying that the school district's policy did not violate the First Amendment. Chief Justice Warren Burger delivered the Court's opinion, in what ended up along with the Graham Rudmann decision to be the final case of the Burger Court era. Fraser refers to this as "the silver lining in the grim cloud of my defeat." Justices William J. Brennan and Harry Blackmun delivered concurring opinions, while Thurgood Marshall and John Paul Stevens dissented.
Though the Court distinguished its 1969 decision Tinker v. Des Moines, which upheld the right for students to express themselves where their words are nondisruptive and could not be seen as connected with the school, the ruling in Fraser can be seen as a limitation on the scope of that ruling, prohibiting certain styles of expression that are sexually vulgar.