Affirmative-Action Cases Among Supreme Court Rulings

September 10, 1986 4 min read

Following is a summary of U.S . Supreme Court rulings from late June and July of interest to educators:

  • Affirmative Action--Voting 6 to 3, the Court on July 2 held that employers can voluntarily adopt, or can be ordered by courts to adopt,job policies that give preference to minority workers who are not proven victims of discrimination.

The rulings in Local No. 93, International Association of Firefighters v. City of Cleveland (Case No. 84- 1999) and Local 28 of Sheet Metnl Workers’ International Association v. Eqool Employment Opportunity Commission (No. 84-1656) rejected the Reagan Administration’s position that only actual victims of job bias can be given jobs or promotions at the expense of others who are equally qualified.

The Congress “intended for voluntary compliance to be the preferred means of achieving the objectives of Title vn” of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Court said. “It is equally clear that the voluntary actions available to employers and unions seeking to eradicate race discrimination may include reasonable race-conscious relief that benefits individuals who were not actual victims of discrimination.”

In the New York case, the Justices ruled that Title VII “plainly expresses Congress’s intent to vest district courts with broad discretion to award ‘appropriate’ equitable relief to remedy unlawful discrimination.”

  • Church-Affiliated Schools--The Court unanimously ruled on June 27 that the First Amendment does not bar Ohio’s civil-rights agency from investigating sex-discrimination charges against a church-affiliated school.
  • The case, Ohio Civil Rights Commission v. Dayton Christian Schools Inc. (No. 85-488), involved a decision by school officials in 1979 not to rehire a pregnant teacher because of the church’s doctrine that mothers should stay at home with their preschool- age children. The teacher filed a complaint with the civil-rights agency, and school officials responded by filing suit in federal district court, arguing that an investigation of its hiring policies or the imposition of any sanctions would violate the First Amendment.

    The “elimination of prohibited sex discrimination is a sufficiently important state interest” to warrant the investigation, the Court held.

  • Sexual Harassment--The Court unanimously held that sexual harassment is a form of discrimination for which an employer can be sued, even if the employee suffers no “economic or tangible” damage.
  • “Unwelcome sexual advances” by a supervisor against an employee “that create an offensive or hostile working environment” are a form of bias prohibited by Title VII, the Justices wrote in their June 19 decision in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson (No. 84-1979). The Court’s decision overturned a district court’s finding that sexual harassment violates Title VII only if it results in economic harm.

  • Student Speech--By a 7-to-2 vote on July 7, the Court held that public-school officials may suspend students for using “vulgar and offensive language.”
  • The case, Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser (No. 84-1667), stemmed from the three-day suspension in 1983 of a Piscataway, Wash., high-school senior for making a speech containing sexual innuendo during a student assembly.

    The Justices held that although the First Amendment would protect an adult making the same type of speech before an adult audience, “it does not follow that the same latitude must be permitted to children in a public school.

    They added that the school’s disciplinary rules gave the student, Matthew Fraser, adequate warning that his speech could result in sanctions.

  • Teacher Suspensions--The Court unanimously decided on June 25 to set aside most of a $302,750 judgment won by a 7th-grade Michigan biology teacher in Memphis Community School District v. Stachura (No. 85-410).
  • The case stemmed from the teachers 1979 suspension following parents’ complaints about his sex-education course. He sued, claiming a violation of his First and 14th Amendment rights, and sought compensatory and punitive damages.

    The Justices held that the federal r judge hearing the case improperly instructed the jury that it could base I damage awards on its reading of the abstract “value” or “importance” of the violated rights.

  • The Court unanimously ruled on July 1 that the 11th Amendment does not bar 23 northern Mississippi county school districts from suing the state over longstanding finance disparities.
  • The origins of the case, Papasan v. Allain (No. 85-499), date from the antebellum South, when the state sold counties’ so-called 16th-section school lands and invested the proceeds in loans to railroads later destroyed during the Civil War.

    Since Reconstruction, the state has appropriated funds to compensate the counties for their financial losses. That appropriation is equal to to 63 cents per pupil in the 23 counties; the 16th-section income in the rest of the state averages $75 per pupil.

    Saying the unequal distribution of state benefits “is precisely the type” of 14th Amendment violation “for which a remedy may permissibly be fashioned,” the Justices sent the case back to the appellate court

    A version of this article appeared in the September 10, 1986 edition of Education Week as Affirmative-Action Cases Among Supreme Court Rulings