It was a major year for education in the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices addressed school vouchers, drug testing of students, and two cases involving the federal law that guarantees the privacy of education records. They also considered cases that affected efforts to protect children from the pornography trade and from sexually explicit material on the Internet. And they dealt with several issues of interest to school districts as employers.
Here are capsule summaries of the education-related cases decided by the high court in its 2001-02 term:
Constitutionality of Including
Religious Schools in Voucher Program
Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (No. 00-1751): In its most significant education decision in years, the court ruled that allowing publicly financed tuition vouchers to be used at religious schools does not violate the First Amendment’s prohibition against a government establishment of religion. The 5-4 ruling, which upheld the state-enacted voucher program in Cleveland, was a landmark victory for the private-school-choice movement.
Drug Testing of Students in
Board of Education of Independent School District No. 92 v. Earls (No. 01-332): The court ruled 5-4 that drug testing of students in extracurricular activities, beyond just those engaged in athletics, does not violate the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches. The decision expands the court’s
1995 decision that authorized drug testing of student athletes.
FAMILY AND EDUCATIONAL RIGHTS AND PRIVACY ACT OF 1974
Peer Grading by Students
Owasso Independent School District v. Falvo (No. 00-1073): The classroom practice of allowing students to grade each other’s papers does not violate the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, the court ruled unanimously. The law, known as ferpa or the Buckley Amendment, requires schools and colleges that receive federal money to protect student records from unauthorized disclosure. The court said the law was meant to apply to records kept by a “central custodian.”
Private Right to Sue
Gonzaga University v. Doe (No. 01-679): The court ruled 7- 2 that individual parents or students may not go to court to enforce provisions of ferpa, or to seek compensation under that law. The majority said Congress intended ferpa to be enforced by the federal Department of Education, not by private civil rights lawsuits.
CHILD ONLINE PROTECTION ACT OF 1999
Use of Community Standards
Ashcroft v. American Civil Liberties Union (No. 00-1293): In a somewhat messy 8-1 ruling, the court partially upheld the Child Online Protection Act, which makes it a crime for commercial Web sites to make sexually explicit material available to minors. A plurality of the court said the law’s reliance on community standards to determine which materials would be unsuitable for minors did not automatically put it in violation of the First Amendment. But the court sent the law back to a federal appeals court for further review.
CHILD PORNOGRAPHY PREVENTION ACT OF 1996
Constitutionality of Prohibition
On ‘Virtual’ Child Pornography
Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition (No. 00-795): The court struck down key provisions of a 1996 federal law that criminalized “virtual” child pornography, such as computer-generated depictions of minors engaged in sex. The court ruled 6-3 that the Child Pornography Prevention Act violated the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech because no children are harmed in the production of computer-generated images defined by the law. The vote was 7- 2 to strike down the law as it might apply to depictions of youthful-looking adults in sexual situations.
CIVIL RIGHTS ACT OF 1964
Time Period for Claims
Over Hostile Work Environment
National Railroad Passenger Corp. v. Morgan (No. 00-1614): In a 5-4 decision, the court gave employees who allege a pattern of racial or sexual harassment in the workplace greater leeway for complying with the time limitations for filing lawsuits under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The majority said that the nature of hostile-work-environment claims involves repeated and cumulative conduct. As long as one act occurred within the appropriate 180- or 300-day lawsuit filing period, a court may consider the whole pattern of alleged harassment.
AMERICANS WITH DISABILITIES ACT OF 1990
Definition of Substantial Limitations
Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams (No. 00- 1089): The court ruled unanimously that to be considered to have a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a person must be substantially limited to activities “that are central to daily life,” such as household chores and bathing. The ruling was a defeat for a Toyota assembly line worker who sued under the ada alleging that she qualified as disabled because carpal tunnel syndrome limited some of the duties she could perform at the auto plant.
Conflicts with Seniority Rules
US Airways Inc. v. Barnett (No. 00-1250): In a 5-4 ruling, the court said an employer’s seniority system cannot ordinarily be overridden by a disabled worker seeking an accommodation under the ada. But while the central part of the ruling was a victory for employers, the court rejected the idea that a seniority system would always prevail. A disabled employee remains free to present evidence of special circumstances that could warrant an exception to the seniority system, the majority said.
Availability of Punitive Damages
Barnes v. Gorman (No. 01-682): The court ruled unanimously that plaintiffs may not win punitive damages from government agencies, including school districts, under the ada or under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities by recipients of federal funding.
A version of this article appeared in the July 10, 2002 edition of Education Week as Education and the Supreme Court: The 2001-02 Term