Supreme Court Sunday is a new weekly column on The Kitchen Table where we will take one landmark Supreme Court case each week and discuss the background, findings, and implications of that case in a conversational and accessible style.  There will be no legal sacred cows in this series, everything is up for discussion.  Hopefully we’ll all learn something, have a few good conversations and have some fun!

This case deals with the Fourth Amendment rights of students who attend public schools.  Basically, the Court was asked to decide whether a public school vice principal, a government official, could conduct a warrantless search of a juvenile student’s belongings, and whether the fruits of the search could be used to charge that juvenile with a crime.

The facts were never in dispute. 14-year-old TLO and a friend were caught smoking in the bathroom of their public school; they wound up in the vice principal’s office to be disciplined.  While TLO was arguing that she hadn’t been smoking, her vice principal demanded to see her purse and began rifling through it.  He discovered marijuana and paraphernalia, and eventually TLO confessed that she had been dealing marijuana at school, and she was charged in the juvenile courts.

Everybody agreed that the search of TLO’s bag in another context, such as by a police officer in the park or in her home, would have constituted a violation of her Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable search and seizure, but the question before the Court was whether school children relinquish their right to privacy in the context of a public school.

Justice Byron White delivered the opinion of the Court.  He noted the special relationship that schools have with students, where they act in loco parentis, or in the place of the parents.  That is to say, we as parents ask the schools to stand in our stead at least to some extent while we place our children in the care of the schools.  That said, when a school disciplines your child, they don’t have the same immunity from the fourth amendment which you do.  (Feel free to unreasonably search and seize things from your kids’ purses all day long.[1]) The school is acting as a government agent when it conducts a search.

Justice White noted the need to balance a school child’s right to privacy with the right of the school to establish a well-ordered learning environment.  He concluded: “It is evident that the school setting requires some easing of the restrictions to which searches by public authorities are ordinarily subject.”  Justice White held that the search of TLO’s belongings was reasonable under the eased restrictions.

Justice William Brennan’s compelling dissent brings this into sharp relief, noting that the departure from the traditional probable cause standard was an unnerving harbinger of continued abridgement of student rights.  Justice Lewis Powell’s concurring opinion called for a further abridgement of student rights.
So, what do we think about this?

I always revert to a communitarian position.  We are as “our brother’s keeper,” and trusting a teacher to take the actions which a troubled child needs to get help, including discipline, must be part of that.  We’ve taken a strong stand that public education is toward the development of virtuous citizens.  On the other hand, I definitely have a visceral reaction to this decision.  Teens should have some measure of autonomy, right?  And Justice Brennan was right, our schools have become little prisons in recent years.

​I could be wrong about this, but I was educated at a public school that tried to teach me “virtue” but wound up teaching me the Enlightenment and the Sexual Revolution.  I just don’t think schools are that good at teaching virtue, and as a corollary, enforcing virtue.  What do you think?  Do you agree with the Court’s decision?  Let me know in the comments!

[1] This is not legal advice.  Nothing in Supreme Court Sunday is legal advice.