Court Ruling in Earls Case Disappoints

by Robinson Hall | 7/2/02 5:00am

Last Thursday, Lindsay Earls '05 lost a four-year battle when the Supreme Court handed down a ruling upholding the right of the Tecumseh, Okla. school district to test students at random for illegal drugs. Unfortunately, the Court's ruling in Board of Education vs. Earls lacks a firm constitutional basis and allows for the routine violation of students' privacy.

The decision affirms that any student participating in any extracurricular activity may be tested for drugs, even if there is no evidence that the student in question is using drugs. Rather, the Court effectively argues that the existence of drug use among high school students in Tecumseh and across the nation constitutes adequate grounds for suspicion.

The drug problem in itself, though, is not grounds on which to suspect any individual student of drug use. By the same logic, merely because murder is a widespread social problem, authorities would be able to investigate anyone's home for evidence of murder. Fortunately, the Fourth Amendment protects Americans from such searches and by the same token ought to protect students from random drug testing.

The Court also cited previous decisions that have established the school's special custodial interest in watching out for the welfare of its students. It is debatable how much of a role any school ought to play beyond merely imparting academic knowledge to students, as students' families and other community institutions also play custodial roles in children's lives. Certainly administering drug tests on a questionable constitutional basis oversteps the school's protective role.

Furthermore, the efficacy of such testing is questionable. Earls has argued that extracurricular activities themselves can serve as a valuable deterrent, as extracurriculars provide students with constructive, non-drug-related activities with which to fill free time.

Justice Clarence Thomas's argument in his majority opinion that students who conscientiously object to drug testing have the choice not to participate in extracurricular activities becomes quite troubling in this light. Students who wish to conscientiously object are thus deprived of the benefits of publicly funded outside-the-classroom activities that enhance their education. In her dissenting opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg also noted that participation in extracurricular activities can also impact a student's ability to gain admission to colleges.

Lindsay Earls said to The Dartmouth that Thursday was "a sad day for students' rights." One can sympathize with Earls' claim. The Court's decision does significantly encroach upon students' privacy and may cause more submit students to the humiliation of tests of dubious constitutionality.

Robinson Hall is the byline of the Dartmouth Summer Editorial Board.