Full-Court Press

October 01, 2001 5 min read

As the Supreme Court begins a new term this month, its gavel stands poised to leave a heavy mark on education. On the high court’s 2001 docket, for example, is a suit that calls into question the common classroom practice of “swapping papers.” After students in Owasso, Oklahoma, were asked to grade each other’s work, one child was so ridiculed, his mother claims, that he wanted to drop out. She sued the district under the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, which bars schools from releasing student records “without the written consent of their parents.” Then there’s the case President Bush is keeping his eye on: a dispute over the constitutionality of school vouchers that stems from a scholarship program in Cleveland.

When it comes to schools, the court has most often addressed questions of civil rights, religious prayer, and students’ right to free speech. As constitutional law professor Jamin Raskin notes, however, “the Supreme Court never wants to sit as a ‘super school board.’ ” Still, each year, education-related cases creep onto the docket, and below are a few decisions, handed down last term, that are worthy of teachers’ attention.

Good News Club v. Milford Central School

Case: The Rev. Stephen and Darleen Fournier are sponsors of Milford, New York’s Good News Club, a chapter of a national organization for 6- through 12-year- olds that promotes belief in Jesus Christ. They claimed their group’s right to religious freedom was violated when, in 1996, the school district refused the club’s request to meet after hours in a K-12 school. District officials said their decision complied with a state law forbidding the promotion and worship of specific religions in schools and maintained that only nonreligious groups could meet on the campus.
Ruling: Voting 6-3 in favor of the Good News Club, the justices declared that the denial of the club’s request to meet was a violation of its members’ First Amendment rights.
Opinion: The court noted that holding such a gathering on school grounds would “ensure, not threaten, neutrality toward religion.” Wrote Justice Clarence Thomas, “We cannot say the danger that children would misperceive the endorsement of religion is any greater than the danger that they would perceive a hostility toward the religious viewpoint if the club were excluded from the public forum.” (Read the text of the opinion.)
Significance: Some conservatives think this could be a step toward judicial support for President Bush’s religious school vouchers, but other court- watchers say the decision merely reinforces past judgments. (“Court Boosts School Access for Religious Groups,” June 20, 2001, Education Week.)

Brentwood Academy v. Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association

Case: In 1997, members of the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association, a nonprofit group that oversees interscholastic sports among the state’s public and private high schools, accused Brentwood Academy, a private school five miles south of Nashville, of recruiting 8th graders for its football team. They claimed that the school violated rules prohibiting members from using “undue influence” to enroll players by offering talented middle schoolers free tickets to games and inviting incoming freshmen to practice with their team while still in the 8th grade. Hit with a $3,000 fine, four years’ probation, and a two-year exclusion from tournaments, Brentwood sued the association for free speech violations. TSSAA responded that, as a private group, it could not be sued under the First Amendment.
Ruling: By a margin of one, the Supreme Court allowed the lawsuit to proceed.
Opinion: Noting that 84 percent of the association’s voting members come from public schools, the justices called TSSAA an organization “pervasively entwined” with state school officials and held that its behavior should be considered state action. Justice David Souter maintained that “there would be no recognizable association, legal or tangible, without the public school officials.” (Read the text of the opinion.)
Significance: The ruling indicates that school athletic associations, depending on the makeup of their memberships, may be considered state actors and, as such, are bound by the First Amendment. (“Sports Group Ruled to Be Arm of State,” Feb. 28, 2001, Education Week.)

Lorillard Tobacco Co. v. Reilly

Case: A group of tobacco manufacturers and retailers claimed their rights, as defined by the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act of 1965, were violated by a 1999 ban on tobacco advertising written by the Massachusetts attorney general’s office. The regulations attempted to curb underage smoking by, among other things, prohibiting tobacco advertising within a 1,000-foot radius of schools, parks, and playgrounds. The federal advertising act prohibits state-imposed regulations on cigarette advertisements and promotions.
Ruling: A five-justice majority said the advertising act preempts the Massachusetts restrictions, which they also declared in violation of the First Amendment. The court, however, reminded both parties that states may set limits-such as forbidding youths under the age of 18 from purchasing cigarettes-on tobacco sales.
Opinion: According to Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, “The state’s interest in preventing underage tobacco use is substantial, and even compelling, but it is no less true that the sale and use of tobacco products by adults is a legal activity.” (Read the text of the opinion.)
Significance: The court’s decision limits states’ abilities to curtail youth smoking because, as research shows, advertising plays a greater role in a teenager’s decision to smoke than even peer pressure. (“As Term Ends, Supreme Court Takes Student-Grading Case,” July 11, 2001, Education Week.)

PGA Tour Inc. v. Martin

Case: Student athletes may reap the benefits of golfer Casey Martin’s legal battle. Martin suffers from a degenerative circulatory disorder that prevents him from complying with a PGA Tour rule obliging all tournament players to walk its courses. When he turned pro in the late ‘90s, he sued for-and won-the right to use a golf cart, citing the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. (Under ADA, groups responsible for “any place of public accommodation” must allow “reasonable modifications” for disabled individuals as long as the fundamental nature of the activity is preserved.) The tour, which claims that walking-induced fatigue tests players’ shot-making abilities, appealed the decision and lost again.
Ruling: Voting 7-2, the justices deemed PGA tournaments within the scope of ADA and compelled the tour to assist Martin.
Opinion: Although the dissenters, Justices Antonin Scalia and Thomas, argued that “the rules are the rules,” the majority made the case that, riding in a cart with his disease, Martin incurs at least as much fatigue as a non-disabled golfer who walks. (Read the text of the opinion.)
Significance: Student athletes, including learning-disabled kids, often invoke the ADA to have sports eligibility requirements waived. This decision may help legitimize their complaints. (“Ruling on Disabled Golfer Could Be Applied to Schools,” June 6, 2001, Education Week.)

—Jennifer Pricola