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10 Supreme Court Cases Every Teen Should Know: Part 2

More of the Court's most important rulings on freedom of speech and privacy at school, and other issues affecting teenagers.

By Tom Jacobs

Part 1 of this article (Upfront, Sept. 3, 2007) addressed five Supreme Court cases dealing with issues both in and out of the classroom, including students' right to protest, school prayer, and how the legal system treats teenagers. Part 2 looks at five more key cases, involving student newspapers, drug testing of athletes, after-school clubs, the use of race in college admissions, and whether children have constitutional protections at home.

Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988)
Issue: Student Journalism and the First Amendment
Bottom Line: Schools Can Censor Student Newspapers

Cathy Kuhlmeier, Leslie Smart, and Leanne Tippett, juniors at Hazelwood East High School in St. Louis, Missouri, helped write and edit the school paper, the Spectrum, as part of a journalism class. An issue of the paper was to include articles about the impact of divorce on students and teen pregnancy. The school's principal refused to publish the two stories, saying they were too sensitive for younger students and contained too many personal details. The girls went to court claiming their First Amendment right to freedom of expression had been violated.

The Supreme Court ruled against the girls. A school newspaper isn't a public forum in which anyone can voice an opinion, the Court said, but rather a supervised learning experience for students interested in journalism. "Educators do not offend the First Amendment by exercising editorial control over the style and content of student speech in school-sponsored expressive activities," the Court said, "so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate [educational] concerns."

Schools may censor newspapers and restrict other forms of student expression, including theatrical productions, yearbooks, creative writing assignments, and campaign and graduation speeches. But the Court's ruling in Hazelwood encourages schools to look closely at a student activity before imposing any restrictions and to balance the goal of maintaining high standards for student speech with students' right to free expression.

Vernonia School District v. Acton (1995)
Issue: Student Athletes and Drug Testing
Bottom Line: Schools Can Require It

James Acton, a 12-year-old seventh-grader at Washington Grade School in Vernonia, Oregon, wanted to try out for the football team. His school required all student athletes to take drug tests at the beginning of the season and on a random basis during the school year. James's parents refused to let him be tested because, they said, there was no evidence that he used drugs or alcohol. The school suspended James from sports for the season. He and his parents sued the school district, arguing that mandatory drug testing without suspicion of illegal activity constituted an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment.

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the school district. Schools must balance students' right to privacy against the need to make school campuses safe and keep student athletes away from drugs, the Court said. The drug-testing policy, which required students to provide a urine sample, involved only a limited invasion of privacy, according to the Justices: "Students who voluntarily participate in school athletics have reason to expect intrusions upon normal rights and privileges, including privacy."

The Court noted that all students surrender some privacy rights while at school: They must follow school rules and submit to school discipline. But student athletes have even fewer privacy rights, the Justices said, and must follow rules that don't apply to other students. Joining a team usually requires getting a physical exam, obtaining insurance coverage, and maintaining a minimum grade point average. And athletes must be willing to shower and change in locker rooms, further reducing their privacy. "School sports are not for the bashful," the Court said.

More recently, the Court has ruled in favor of school policies requiring random drug testing for all extracurricular activities (Board of Education v. Earls, 2002).

West Side Community Schools v. Mergens (1990) Issue: Student Clubs
Bottom Line: Public Schools That Allow Student-interest Clubs Cannot Exclude Religious or political ones

Bridget Mergens was a senior at Westside High School in Omaha, Nebraska. She asked her homeroom teacher, who was also the school's principal, for permission to start an after-school Christian club. Westside High already had about 30 clubs, including a chess club and a scuba-diving club. The principal denied Bridget's request, telling her that a religious club would be illegal in a public school.

The year before, in 1984, Congress had addressed this issue in the Equal Access Act, which required public schools to allow religious and political clubs if they let students form other kinds of student-interest clubs. When Bridget challenged the principal's decision, her lawsuit became the Supreme Court's test case for deciding whether the Equal Access Act was constitutional under what is known as the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Bridget. Allowing students to meet on campus to discuss religion after school did not amount to state sponsorship of religion, the Court said: "We think that secondary-school students are mature enough and are likely to understand that a school does not endorse or support student speech that it merely permits."

If a public school allows only clubs tied to the school curriculum—a French club related to French classes, for instance—it can exclude clubs that don't connect to its educational mission. But once a school allows student-interest clubs—such as a scuba-diving club, environmental club, or jazz club—it cannot exclude religious clubs, political clubs, gay-lesbian clubs, or other groups.

If the club is religious in nature, however, the school must refrain from active involvement or sponsorship, so that it doesn't run afoul of the Establishment Clause, the Court said.

Grutter v. Bollinger (2003)
Issue: Affirmative Action in College
Bottom Line: Colleges Can Use Race as a Factor in Admissions

In 1997, Barbara Grutter, a white Michigan resident, was denied admission to the University of Michigan Law School. Grutter, who had a 3.8 undergraduate grade point average and good standardized test scores, sued the university over the law school's affirmative action policy, which considered race as a factor in admissions. Michigan and many other universities use affirmative action to increase the number of minority students admitted. Grutter claimed that Michigan admitted less-qualified minority applicants in violation of federal civil rights laws and the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees citizens "equal protection" under the law.

The Supreme Court upheld the use of affirmative action in higher education. "Student-body diversity is a compelling state interest that can justify the use of race in university admissions," the Court said. But the Court emphasized that the University of Michigan's policy was acceptable because the school conducted a thorough review of each applicant's qualifications and did not use a racial quota system—meaning it did not set aside a specific number of offers for minority applicants.

Affirmative action, which has its origins in a 1961 executive order issued by President John F. Kennedy, continues to be a contentious issue, with critics charging that it amounts to reverse discrimination. Since 1996, voters in three states—California, Washington, and, most recently, Michigan—have approved laws banning affirmative action in public education, in state government hiring, and the awarding of state contracts. (At Upfrontmagazine.com: a look at the Court's decision in June limiting the use of race in public school integration plans.)

DeShaney v. Winnebago County Social Services (1989)
Issue: Constitutional Rights at Home
Bottom Line: The Constitution Doesn't Protect Kids from Their Parents

Four-year-old Joshua DeShaney lived with his father, who physically abused him, in Neenah, Wisconsin. At one point, the State Department of Social Services took custody of Joshua but returned him after three days. Later, Joshua was hospitalized with bruises all over his body and severe brain damage. He survived, but was permanently paralyzed and mentally disabled. His father was convicted of child abuse and sent to prison. Joshua's mother sued the Department of Social Services for returning him to his father. She argued that the department had a duty to protect her son under the Fourteenth Amendment, which forbids the state from depriving "any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law."

The Court ruled against Joshua and his mother. It said essentially that the Constitution does not protect children from their parents and that therefore the government was not at fault in Joshua's abuse.

The Supreme Court has consistently respected parents' rights to discipline their children. But even though the government isn't required under the Constitution to protect children, all states assume this responsibility through child protection laws. The Supreme Court has generally deferred to state and local governments to enforce these laws and to intervene in cases of mistreatment.