Education and the Supreme Court: The 2001-01 Term
Many legal observers expected this U.S. Supreme Court term to be relatively quiet. It was, until the small matter of Bush v. Gore (Case No. 00-949) came along in late fall after Election Day. Besides the two extraordinary decisions stemming from the disputed presidential election, the justices also handled a number of cases involving schools or related issues of interest to educators.
Here are capsule summaries of the education-related cases decided by the high court in its 2000-2001 term:
Good News Club v. Milford Central School (No. 99-2036): A school district must provide the same after-school access to its facilities to a children's Bible club that it provides to other community groups, the court said in a 6-3 decision. The majority said that a New York state school district's refusal to allow the Good News Club to meet in its school building violated the club's First Amendment right of free speech. The district's adoption of a broad community-access policy had created an open forum in the school, and thus the club could not be excluded because of its religious nature.
Brentwood Academy v. Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (No. 99-901): A state high school athletic association whose membership and governance are dominated by public schools is a "state actor" subject to the U.S. Constitution's constraints on government action, the court said in a 5-4 ruling. The majority held that the Tennessee athletic governing body acts with government authority when it enforces its rules for public and private high schools in the state. A private school had sued the association, claiming that its rules against recruiting students violated the First Amendment.
Alexander v. Sandoval (No. 99- 1908): In a case with potentially broad implications for education litigation, the court ruled 5-4 that there is no private right to sue over so-called disparate-impact discrimination in programs receiving federal money. The case concerned Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars intentional discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in federally financed programs. Regulations adopted by many federal agencies, including the Department of Education, extend the law's prohibition to action that, despite the lack of intentional bias, has a discriminatory impact on protected groups. Many lower federal courts have ruled that such agency rules against disparate-impact discrimination can be enforced through private lawsuits. But the Supreme Court majority said Congress never explicitly authorized such suits when it passed or amended the Civil Rights Act.
Clark County School District v. Breeden (No. 00-866) (requires Adobe's Acrobat Reader): The court used a case involving alleged sexual harassment in a school district's central office to reiterate its view that a single incident in which an employee makes a sexually explicit comment does not constitute illegal sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In an unsigned, unanimous opinion, the court said that "simple teasing, offhand comments, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious), will not amount to" a violation of Title VII.
PGA Tour Inc. v. Martin (No. 00-24) (requires Adobe's Acrobat Reader): In a 7-2 ruling that is expected to have an impact on school sports, the court held that a professional golf tournament was a public accommodation covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The majority went on to say that allowing a qualified golfer with a leg disorder to use a golf cart, despite the tour's rule requiring that competitors walk the course, would not fundamentally alter the nature of the golf tour.
University of Alabama v. Garrett (No. 99-1240) (requires Adobe's Acrobat Reader): In its latest ruling in the area of federalism and states' rights, the court ruled 5-4 that states are immune from lawsuits for damages under the main employment provision of the ADA. Ruling in the cases of two Alabama state employees, the majority said Congress lacked the power to make states subject to damage suits for employment discrimination under the federal disabilities law. The ruling makes it more difficult for employees of state universities to sue for job discrimination under the ADA. However, it does not generally apply to school districts because local governments do not automatically have the same immunity from damages suits as state governments.
Lorillard Tobacco Co. v. Reilly (No. 00-596) (requires Adobe's Acrobat Reader): The court struck down Massachusetts' regulations limiting tobacco advertising near schools and parks. A 5-4 majority said the regulations, which were aimed at combating youth smoking, were pre-empted by a 1969 act of Congress that prescribed warnings for cigarette packages, banned cigarette advertising on radio and television, and barred states from further regulation "with respect to advertising or promotion." All nine members of the court agreed that most of the regulations violated tobacco companies' First Amendment right of free speech. The court upheld only a provision requiring retailers to place tobacco products behind counters.
Vol. 20, Issue 42, Page 30Published in Print: July 11, 2001, as Education and the Supreme Court: The 2001-01 Term