Supreme Court Cases:

Abington SD v. Schempp
Abrams v. United States
Adler v. Board of Education
Alexander v. Board of Education
Barnette v. Board of Education
Barron v. Baltimore

Berghuis v. Thompkins
Bethel SD v. Fraser

Boumediene v. Bush
Brandenburg v. Ohio
Browder v. Gayle
Brown v. Board of Education
Cantwell v. Connecticut
Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission
Communist Party v. SACB
Davis v. Monroe
Dennis v. United States
DC v. Heller

Dred Scott v. Sandford
Eisenstadt v. Baird
Elk Grove v. Newdow
Engel v. Vitale
Ex Parte Merryman
Ex Parte Milligan
Ex Parte Quirin
Franklin v. Gwinnett
Furman v. Georgia
Gideon v. Wainwright
Gitlow v. New York
Gonzales v. Carhart
Goss v. Lopez

Graham v. Florida
Green v. New Kent County
Gregg v. Georgia
Griswold v. Connecticut
Hamdan v. Rumsfeld
Hamdi v. Rumsfeld
Hazelwood SD v. Kuhlmeier
Hirabayashi v. US
Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project

In Re Gault
Ingraham v. Wright
Island Trees SD v. Pico
Katz v. United States
Korematsu v. United States

Lawrence v. Texas
Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire
Lee v. Weisman
Loving v. Virginia
Mapp v. Ohio
Marbury v. Madison
McCulloch v. Maryland

Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education
Milliken v. Bradley
Minersville SD v. Gobitis

Minor v. Happersett
Miranda v. Arizona

Morse v. Frederick
New Jersey v. T.L.O
New York Times v. Sullivan
Olmstead v. United States
Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle Schools

Plessy v. Ferguson
Plyer v. Doe
Pottawatomie v. Earls
Rasul v. Bush
Regents of UC v. Bakke
Roe v. Wade

Safford Unified School District v. April Redding

Santa Fe SD v. Doe
Scales v. United States
Scottsboro Cases
Schenck v. United States
Stone v. Graham
Stromberg v. California
Swann v. Charlotte
Terry v. Ohio
Tinker v. Des Moines SD
United States v. O'Brien
Vernonia v. Acton
Wallace v. Jaffre
Ware v. Hylton
Yates v. United States
Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co. v. Sawyer

(Use index to left to search for a specific case. See map below for Student Rights cases)

Abington School District v. Schempp (1963)
A year after the US Supreme Court struck down prayer in schools in the case Engel v. Vitale, it revisited the issue of religion in schools in Abington School District v. Schempp. Pennsylvania state law had sought to get around the Court's opposition to prayer in school by requiring that "at least ten verses from the Holy Bible shall be read, without comment, at the opening of each public school on each school day." The verses were from the New Testament. At Abington Senior High School, which the Schempp children attended, the verses were read by students and broadcast to all classrooms through the intercommunications system, followed by the recitation of the Lord's Prayer and then the Pledge of Allegiance.


Click on a state below to learn more about student rights struggles across the country. Or click here for full list.
Although students were not required to be present when the verses were read, if they left the room and stood outside in the hall, they would miss public announcements and could also be seen as misfits by their peers.    

The US Supreme Court ruled on behalf of the Schempp family, which had challenged the practice on the grounds that it violated the separation of Church and State.  It declared that "the very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials, and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts.  One's right to...freedom of worship...and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections...In the relationship between man and religion, the State is firmly committed to a position of neutrality."

  1. Learn what it was like to be a student plaintiff in this case from Ellery Schempp.
  2. Listen to the oral arguments:
  3. Read the decision:

Abrams v. United States (1919)
This case, decided by the Supreme Court only eight months after its decision in Schenck, involved four political radicals who were arrested for distributing "seditious" leaflets by throwing them out of a third floor window in New York City. By 7-2, the justices decided that the free speech rights of the accused had not been violated by their arrest.  The case is important for the eloquent dissent written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who modified his own "clear and present danger" test to say speech should be protected unless immediate danger to the government was at hand.  He called the leaflets involved in this case "silly" and said they did not represent such a danger and should therefore be protected.

Adler v. Board of Education (1952)
The Supreme Court found constitutional a New York state law which prohibited any person from teaching or holding any other position in public schools if he or she advocated the overthrow of the government by force.  Merely belonging to an organization that had been listed as one advocating the overthrow of the government by force was enough to disqualify a person from such employment. According to the court, "School authorities have the right and duty to screen the officials, teachers, and employees as to their fitness in order to maintain the integrity of the schools."

Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education (1969)
Again, the Supreme Court said that 15 years after the Brown decision, the time for "all deliberate speed" had come to an end, and Mississippi schools had to be immediately desegregated.

Barnette v. West Virginia Board of Education (1943)
In 1943, the US Supreme Court overturned the ruling it had made three years previously in another flag salute case involving Jehovah's Witness students, Minersville v. Gobitis.  By a vote of 6-3 the court in Barnette v. WVa. Board of Education came down on the side of students who had been expelled from school for refusing to salute the flag. 

The students had brought a challenge to a compulsory flag salute required by the West Virginia Board of Education, which stated that failure to conform was "insubordination" which should be dealt with by expulsion. Not only were expelled children to be regarded as ‘unlawfully absent,’ but they were also considered to be potential delinquents and their parents were subjected to prosecution, fines and jail terms.

While the students' case had been presented as a matter of religious liberty, the majority Supreme Court opinion written by Justice Robert Jackson in the Barnette case was a ringing endorsement of the right to freedom of thought and expression, even in the middle of a war. The decision states that "the very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts."  In other words, it was not up to legislatures or popular opinion to decide whether or not to uphold fundamental rights.  The opinion examines whether "compulsion" is a permissible means to achieve "uniformity of sentiment" and "national unity" and points out where that may lead: "Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard....We set up government by consent of the governed, and the Bill of Rights denies those in power any legal opportunity to coerce that consent." 

With these stirring words the decision enshrines the right to dissent: "If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein...We think the action of local authorities in compelling the flag salute and pledge transcends the constitutional limitations on their power and invades the sphere of intellect and spirit which it is the purpose of the First Amendment to our Constitution to reserve from all official control..." 

This ruling for the first time recognizes that the Bill of Rights applies to students in public schools.  Students cannot be forced to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance, and cannot be punished for refusing to salute the flag.

Barron v. Baltimore (1833)
John Barron was co-owner of a profitable wharf in the harbor of Baltimore .  But as the city developed, construction caused the harbor to silt up and ruined his business. He invoked the Fifth Amendment to sue the city for the money he had lost. But the Supreme Court did not support him. It ruled that the Fifth Amendment guarantee that when the government takes private property for public use there must be just compensation did not apply to the states, but only to the federal government.  This decision was used at the time to interpret the Bill of Rights as only applying to the national government, not to the states.

Berghuis v. Thompkins (2010)

In 2010, the US Supreme Court by 5–4 reinterpreted and narrowed its 1966 Miranda v. Arizona decision. In Miranda, the Court had ruled that the police must inform the suspect before interrogation that he has a right to remain silent and to get an attorney. If the police don’t give this warning, the suspect’s words cannot be used as evidence in court. In Berghuis v. Thompkins however, the Court ruled that the suspect’s silence is not enough to invoke his right to remain silent. The suspect must explicitly state that he wishes to remain silent.  If he doesn’t say so explicitly, or if, after a long silence, he answers a question with a single-word response amounting to a confession, the court can assume that the suspect has waived his rights to remain silent or to have an attorney and the word can be used against him in court. Thus, the police are now permitted to interrogate a silent suspect for hours if the suspect doesn’t say aloud that he wants to be silent. In her dissent, Justice Sotomayor expressed distress that it was “a substantial retreat from the protection against compelled self-incrimination that Miranda v. Arizona has long provided during custodial interrogation.”

Bethel School District v. Fraser (1986)
In 1986 the US Supreme Court narrowed the "Tinker standard" when it ruled 7-2 in the case Bethel School District v. Fraser that a school can ban expression it considered to be "lewd, indecent or offensive" whether or not it caused "substantial disruption" in the school.      

Matthew Fraser, a student at Bethel High in Washington State, had delivered a nomination speech for classmate Jeff Kuhlman for a student government office before a voluntary assembly.  The speech contained these sentences: "I know a man who is firm – he's firm in his pants, he's firm in his shirt, his character is firm – but most...of all, his belief in you, the students of Bethel, is firm. Jess is a man who will go to the very end – even the climax, for each and every one of you." The next day a school official informed him that he had violated a school rule against "the use of obscene, profane language or gestures" and he was given a three-day suspension.  

He sued in federal court, arguing that the suspension violated his First Amendment rights. Both the federal and US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit agreed with him, stating that his speech did not cause the "substantial disruption" which was part of the "Tinker standard" for protected student speech. But the US Supreme Court sided with the school district. "The undoubted freedom to advocate unpopular and controversial views in schools and classrooms must be balanced against the society's countervailing interest in teaching students the boundaries of socially appropriate behavior," Chief Justice Burger wrote. "The First Amendment does not prevent the school officials from determining that to permit a vulgar and lewd speech...would undermine the school's basic educational mission.  A high school assembly or classroom is no place for a sexually explicit monologue directed towards an unsuspecting audience of teenage students." Schools therefore could punish students for "lewd, indecent, or offensive" speech.   

  1. Listen to the oral argument:
  2. Read the decision:
  3. Read what Matthew Fraser says about the case 15 years later:

Boumediene v. Bush (2008)

Lakhdar Boumediene, a citizen of Bosnia and Herzegovina, was sent to Guantanamo Bay detention camps in 2002 after he was seized as a suspected enemy combatant. Boumediene submitted a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, demanding to get a trial instead of being detained indefinitely. However, in 2007, the US Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit dismissed his petition, citing a provision in the Military Commissions Act of 2006 (MCA) that restricted habeas corpus for non-citizens who are determined to be “unlawful enemy combatants.” The Supreme Court reversed this ruling and deemed the MCA to be unconstitutional, stating that foreign terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay have constitutional rights to challenge their detention

Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969)
A leader of the Ku Klux Klan was arrested after he made a speech at a Klan rally and charged under an Ohio law that made it illegal to advocate "crime, sabotage, violence, or unlawful means of terrorism..."  The Supreme Court struck down this law as over broad. It ruled that speech could only be prohibited if it is "directed at inciting or producing imminent lawless action" and is "likely to incite or produce such action."  Mere advocacy which does not incite imminent lawless action is protected by the First Amendment.

Browder v. Gayle (1956)
A year before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery , Alabama , 15-year old Claudette Colvin, Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald and Mary Louise Smith had taken a similar action to challenge Montgomery 's segregated buses.  In February 1956, with the Montgomery bus boycott well underway, these four women brought suit in US district court arguing that the segregated buses deprived them of their Fourteenth Amendment rights to equal protection of the laws.  Drawing upon the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the district court judges agreed with their claims.  In December 1956, the US Supreme Court upheld the lower court ruling in Browder v. Gayle, bringing victory to the organizers of the year-long Montgomery bus boycott.

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954, 1955)
Linda Brown was a third grader in Topeka , Kansas who had to walk a mile through railway yards to get to her segregated elementary school although a white school was only seven blocks away.  The NAACP took her case to test the "separate but equal" doctrine dating from the 1896 Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson.  By the time the case reached the Supreme Court, it had been combined with other cases challenging school desegregation in South Carolina , Virginia and Delaware .  In one of the most significant rulings of the 20th century, the US Supreme Court in 1954 unanimously outlawed as unconstitutional the mandatory racial segregation of public schools that existed in 21 states on the grounds that segregated facilities are "inherently equal."  In 1955, the Supreme Court ruled that schools should comply with the ruling "with all deliberate speed" – which could be (and was) interpreted to mean there was no rush.

Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940)
Newton Cantwell and his two sons were arrested for soliciting members for their religion by handing out pamphlets and blasting anti- Roman Catholic messages on a portable phonograph.  They were charged with violating a local ordinance requiring a permit for solicitation and inciting a breach of the peace. In court they argued that their prosecution violated their First Amendment rights.  In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court for the first time held that the First Amendment's guarantee of religious freedom applied to the states. The Jehovah's Witnesses could spread their religious message on the streets without a permit and their actions did not cause a breach of the peace.

Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942)
Walter Chaplinsky, a Jehovah's Witness, was arrested for calling a city official a "God-damned racketeer" and "damned fascist" in a public place.  The Supreme Court decided that these were "fighting words" that were meant to "inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breech of the peace."  Like obscene, profane and libelous words and expression, fighting words did not have First Amendment protection.

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010)

In a narrow 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment protects corporations’ spending on “electioneering communications” during political election campaigns.  The Court struck down a provision of the law prohibiting corporations and unions from funding election advertisements within 60 days of a general election and 30 days of a primary.  The dissenting opinion raised concerns that this would allow corporations and businesses to have disproportionate influence in the political marketplace.

Communist Party of America v. Subversive Activities Control Board (1961)
Because the Communist Party of the United States of America was regarded as a movement dominated by a nation hostile to the US , the court concluded that the Party had to register with the Justice Department.   According to the court, it was not a violation of the First Amendment to force the Party to hand over its membership lists and financial statements.    This decision was reversed four years later in Albertson v. Subversive Activities Control Board.

Cox v. Louisiana (1965)
In 1961 Elton Cox led students on a civil rights demonstration through the streets of Baton Rouge to the courthouse.  They kept to the side of the road so traffic would not be obstructed.  At lunchtime, Cox called for demonstrators to try to get service at one of the segregated lunch counters in the vicinity.  At this point, police fired tear gas at the crowd and arrested Cox.  He was convicted of disturbing the peace.  The US Supreme Court struck down the state law under which he was convicted, saying it was overbroad and not fairly applied.  The court said other parades and street meetings that blocked the street had been permitted under the law, and Cox had been deprived of the right of free speech and assembly.  The Court added that "the rights of free speech and assembly do not mean that everyone may address a group in any public place at any time."

Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education (1999)
In a 5-4 ruling that left the US Supreme Court bitterly divided, the majority of the court decided that school districts do have an obligation to protect students from peer-to-peer sexual harassment. The court ruled that schools can be sued under Title IX of the 1972 Education Act barring sexual discrimination if it can be shown that the sexual harassment is "so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively bars the victim's access to an educational opportunity or benefit," and school officials have done nothing to stop it, but instead acted with deliberate indifference.   The case involved LaShonda Davis, a fifth grader in a Georgia school, who, over a period of five months, was taunted so severely that her grades dropped and she contemplated suicide.  School officials did nothing in response to her mother's complaints. 

  1. Listen to the oral arguments:
  2. Read the decision:

Dennis v. United States (1951)
Eleven members of the American Community Party had been convicted under the Smith Act of willfully advocating the overthrow of the US government by force or violence.  The Supreme Court upheld their convictions, drawing a distinction between teaching about communism and actively advocating communist views that threatened the government.  The fact that such advocacy was not likely to succeed was irrelevant. It still presented a "clear and present danger" that does not enjoy First Amendment protection.

District of Columbia v. Heller (2008)

Various District of Columbia residents challenged the D.C. Firearms Control Regulations Act of 1975 that restricted handguns and required that rifles and shotguns be kept unloaded or bound by a trigger lock. The Supreme Court ruled in their favor, holding that “the Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home.” In doing so, parts of the D.C. Firearms Control Regulations Act were deemed unconstitutional. This is the first Supreme Court case in US history to decide whether the Second Amendment protects an individual right to keep and bear arms for self defense.

Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) 
Dred Scott was taken by his master, John Sandford, from the slave state of Missouri to Illinois (a free state by the Missouri Compromise of 1820) with his master. Upon his return to Missouri , Scott sued on the grounds that he was not a slave due to the time he had spent in freedom.   The US Supreme Court held by 7-2 that no one but a citizen of the United States could be a citizen of a state, and that only Congress could confer national citizenship.  Chief Justice Roger Taney, from a slave owning family in Maryland , concluded that the phrase “all men are created equal” from the Declaration of Independence was never meant to apply to the enslaved African race and that no person descended from an African slave could be a citizen. The ruling also held that Missouri Compromise – which prohibited slavery north of the 36th parallel in the land of the Louisiana Purchase – was unconstitutional.

Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972)
William Baird was convicted in Massachusetts of giving contraception to an unmarried woman in violation of a state law that said contraception could only be given by authorized distributors (which Baird was not) and then only to married couples.  The US Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional, stating there was no "rational basis" to distinguish between married and single people in this way, and that this was an "unwarranted governmental intrusion."

Elk Grove v. Newdow (2004)
The US Supreme Court chose Flag Day, June 14, 2004, to issue a ruling in the controversial case Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow.  This case had challenged the use of the words  "under God" in the Pledge of  Allegiance as a violation of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.  The words had been added to the Pledge by federal statute on Flag Day, June 14, 1954 to distinguish the US from its Cold War enemy, the Soviet Union , which rejected all organized religion. 

The case was brought by a professed atheist, Michael Newdow, who said his nine-year-old daughter's religious liberty was violated because she had to hear the Pledge in class, even though she did not have to participate in it.  A district court ruled against Mr. Newdow, but then the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit agreed that the words "under God" in the Pledge and the school's policy of requiring the Pledge on a daily basis both failed the Lemon test – the standard established by the Supreme Court for deciding when a practice violated the Establishment Clause.

There was an immediate outcry against this ruling in both the US Congress and across the country.  Then the legal picture got more complicated.  The mother of Newdow's daughter – who had custody of the child – publicly stated that she disapproved of the lawsuit.  She said that as a born-again Christian, she did not mind the girl being exposed to the Pledge in school. 

The Supreme Court had to decide two things: whether the Pledge in schools violated the Establishment Clause because it contained the words  "under God," and whether Michael Newdow as a non-custodial parent had legal "standing" – an identifiable interest that gave him the right to speak for his daughter before a federal court.  The court ducked the Establishment Clause issue, so we still don't know whether the words "under God" violate the Constitution.  On the matter of Newdow's right to bring the case, it ruled that because of family law principles, Newdow did not have standing to bring the suit in federal court.

  1. Listen to the oral arguments:
  2. Read the decision:

Engel v. Vitale (1962)
In 1962 the Supreme Court decided the case of Engel v. Vitale challenging organized prayer in schools.  The case had been brought by parents of ten students at New Hyde Park High School in New York, who had to start school each day saying aloud the following prayer:  "Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country."

They argued that the state law requiring this prayer was a violation of the Establishment clause of the First Amendment and the separation of Church and State because it furthered the religious beliefs of one particular group. 

A New York State Court had ruled in favor of prayer in schools as long as the schools did not compel students to join in over their or parental objections.  But the Supreme Court disagreed, and stated that prayer in public schools "breaches the constitutional wall of separation between Church and this country, it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as a part of a religious program carried on by government."

  1. Listen to the oral argument:  
  2. Read the decision:

Ex Parte Merryman (1861)
This was not a Supreme Court case but a ruling by Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney, sitting as a judge for the US Circuit Court for the District of Maryland.  It was an important test of presidential power during wartime.  As the Civil War broke out, there were riots in parts of Maryland, and Lieutenant John Merryman, an officer in the Maryland cavalry was arrested shortly after President Lincoln, in April 1861, suspended habeas corpus in the area where there was fighting.  Merryman filed a writ of habeas corpus, seeking his release from what he said was arbitrary imprisonment.  Chief Justice Taney ruled that only Congress, not the president, could suspend habeas corpus.  President Lincoln disregarded the ruling. 

Ex Parte Milligan (1866)
In September 1863, in the middle of the Civil War, President Lincoln imposed congressionally-authorized martial law and suspended habeas corpus in the case of spies and “aiders of the enemy.”  Lambdin Milligan was a Confederate sympathizer who was sentenced to death by a military tribunal in Indiana for disloyalty and inciting insurrection.  Milligan petitioned the circuit court for habeas corpus and the Supreme Court ended up hearing his case and ruling in his favor.  In a landmark decision, the court ruled that military tribunals could not be established to try civilians where courts were open, even in war time, and that the suspension of habeas corpus was illegal unless the courts were closed.

Ex Parte Quirin (1942)
In a decision that has been relied on by the Bush Administration to defend the military commissions it established at Guantanamo Bay to try suspected "enemy combatants," the US Supreme Court upheld the jurisdiction of the military tribunal which presided over the trial of eight Germans who during the Second World War entered the US secretly to conduct sabotage operations.  The court said even though civilian courts were open, the saboteurs were "unlawful belligerents" who did not have Sixth Amendment protections and should be tried by military courts.  The eight Germans were sentenced to death.  Six were executed and President Roosevelt commuted the death sentences of two of the men. 

Franklin v. Gwinnett County School District (1992)
The US Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Christine Franklin could sue her school district for failing to halt a teacher's sexual advances when she was a student at North Gwinnett High School.   After Franklin filed a complaint, the school district had opened an investigation of the teacher, Andrew Hill, but closed the investigation when Hill agreed to resign on condition that all matters pending against him were dropped. 

Franklin then went to district court, stating she was the victim, and had been left without any possibility of redress for the wrong she had suffered. The case was brought under Title IX of the 1972 federal Education Act, that bars sexual discrimination in schools that receive federal funding.  The district court and the appeals court both ruled that Title IX did not authorize the award of damages.  But the Supreme Court disagreed, ruling that she could demand restitution for the injury inflicted on her, and the courts should decide what damages should be paid.

Furman v. Georgia (1972)
The Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling in Furman v. Georgia brought to a halt all executions that were pending in the 39 states that had the death penalty.  At the time there were 600 people on death row, but executions were infrequently carried out.  Under review were three different cases in which the death penalty was given African-American defendants:  Lucious Jackson, who was convicted of rape in Georgia; Elmer Branch, who was convicted of rape in Texas ; and William Henry Furman, who was convicted of murder in Georgia .  Furman was robbing a house when he was surprised by the return of the resident.  He tripped while trying to escape from the house and accidentally discharged his weapon, killing the resident. The Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision held that the death penalty was imposed in such a random way that it was no longer a credible deterrent to crime and in these instances, constituted cruel and unusual punishment barred by the Eighth Amendment.  The justices were very divided in their reasoning.  One wrote that he could not permit "this unique penalty to be so wantonly and so freakishly imposed."  Others felt the death penalty had no place in contemporary society, and was disproportionately used against members of minority groups.  Dissenting justices maintained that it could only be abolished by legislatures, not by the courts. 

After this decision, 37 states rewrote their death penalty laws to make them "constitutional."   These re-drafted laws were upheld by the Supreme Court beginning with its 1976 decision in Gregg v. Georgia

Gideon v. Wainwright (1963)
Clarence Earl Gideon was charged with breaking into a Florida pool hall and stealing money from a vending machine.  He was too poor to hire a lawyer, and defended himself after the Florida court said it only had to provide attorneys to indigent defendants in capital cases.  The US Supreme Court unanimously ruled otherwise, overturning its 1942 decision in Betts v. Brady.   In Justice Black's words, in the American system of justice "lawyers in criminal cases are necessities, not luxuries."  The court therefore held that indigent defendants in state courts had the Sixth Amendment right to be represented by a court-appointed attorney if they could not afford to hire their own.

Gitlow v. New York (1925)
Benjamin Gitlow was a socialist who was arrested and prosecuted for distributing copies of “left wing manifestos” that called for the establishment of socialism through strikes and other actions. Gitlow was prosecuted for “criminal anarchy” under a New York state law, that punished advocating the overthrow of the government through force.  Gitlow argued that he was innocent due to the fact that there was no violent action because of the manifesto and so his speech was protected by the First Amendment.  The Supreme Court ruling is significant in being the first time that the court ruled the First Amendment does apply to the states, not just the federal government.  But it did not uphold Gitlow’s First Amendment rights. Instead, it ruled that a state has the authority to forbid any speech and publication if they have a tendency to result in dangerous action to public security, but do not create a “clear and present danger.”   This is known as the “dangerous tendency” test.

Gonzales v. Carhart (2007)
By 5-4 the Supreme Court for the first time ever upheld a federal law banning a specific method of abortion and did so with no reference to the health of the mother.  In so doing, it reversed a ruling it had made in 2000, also by 5-4,  declaring an identical state law to be unconstitutional.  In 2000, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was the swing vote.  She has since retired from the Court.  Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the only woman on the Supreme Court bench, wrote a passionate dissent denouncing the majority decision.

Goss v. Lopez (1975)
In 1971, there was widespread racial tension and unrest in Columbus, Ohio.  After school officials cancelled the Black History Week that students had organized and whites shot two African-American students, protests were held in high schools and junior high schools in the city.  School officials suspended a large number of students for ten days without any kind of a hearing. Some, like Dwight Lopez, maintained they were bystanders to demonstrations, and had done nothing wrong.  Nine of those students brought a lawsuit against the Columbus Board of Education challenging their suspension.  The case eventually reached the Supreme Court.  

By 5-4, the court ruled that students were entitled to due process rights, even in cases of short suspensions.  At the very minimum, the court said, a student "must be given some kind of notice and afforded some kind of hearing."  In cases of suspensions lasting ten days or less, the student must be "given oral or written notice of the charges against him and, if he denies them, an explanation of the evidence the authorities have and an opportunity to present his side of the story."   

Dissenting justices feared the ruling would make it much more difficult to maintain discipline in schools and give federal courts "a vast new role in society" as students turned to them whenever they didn't like how they were treated in schools.

  1. Listen to the oral arguments:
  2. Read the decision:

Graham v. Florida (2010)

Sixteen-year-old Terrance Graham was convicted of armed home invasion when on probation for robbing a restaurant.  He was given a life sentence without parole. He appealed, arguing that the sentence he was given was a violation of the Eighth Amendments ban on  “cruel and unusual punishment.” The Supreme Court agreed, ruling that a juvenile offender cannot be sentenced for life without parole for a non-homicidal crime.

Green v. County Board of New Kent County (1969)
In a case from Virginia , the Supreme Court ordered the states to dismantle segregated schools "root and branch," saying the "time for mere deliberate speed has run out."  Schools had to desegregate their staff, facilities, extracurricular activities and transport systems.

Gregg v. Georgia (1976)
Tony Gregg had been sentenced to death in Georgia for armed robbery and murder.  When he appealed his sentence as "cruel and unusual" and a violation of the Eighth Amendment, the US Supreme Court in a 7-2 decision upheld the sentence.  The court ruled that the death penalty was an appropriate punishment in extreme criminal cases and that Georgia had developed appropriate standards and other safeguards to guide a jury's deliberations in capital cases.

Griswold v. Connecticut (1965)
The head of Planned Parenthood in Connecticut was convicted under a state law that barred counseling married persons for the purpose of preventing contraception.  Her conviction was overturned and the law struck down by the Supreme Court which ruled that although a right to "privacy" was not specifically spelled out in the Constitution, the right to privacy in marital relations was to be found in "penumbras" of constitutional protections contained in the First, Third, and Ninth Amendments.

Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (2006)
On June 30, 2006, the US Supreme Court by 5-3 ruled that President Bush had overstepped his authority when he set up military commissions to try detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba through a November 13, 2001 Executive Order.  In a stunning decision, the court declared that the commissions were illegal and violated the Geneva Conventions governing the treatment of prisoners in wartime, and that the president had to comply with the "Rule of Law."  (The Bush Administration had long declared that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to the Guantanamo detainees, and the president had "inherent power" as commander-in-chief to prosecute the "war on terror" as he saw fit). With this ruling, the Supreme Court exercised a check on that presidential authority.  It gave President Bush a choice of either adopting regular military courts-martial to try the detainees, or asking Congress to pass legislation setting up a kind of tribunal that would give detainees a fair trial – which the military commissions would not.

Hamdi v. Rumsfeld (2004)
Yaser Hamdi was an American citizen who was captured by a militia in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 and turned over to the US military.  He was then sent to a military prison on a naval ship in South Carolina , where he was held incommunicado an "unlawful enemy combatant" without access to a lawyer or the courts.   A Virginia attorney challenged his indefinite detention by filing a habeas corpus petition on his behalf, and a US District Court agreed that there was no good evidence to hold him without access to the courts.  But a panel of the US Appeals Court for the Fourth Circuit found that the executive branch could hold him indefinitely because he had been captured in a "zone of active combat" and that he did not have the right to a court hearing.  The US Supreme Court disagreed.  With Justice Sandra Day O'Connor writing the opinion, the court said that an "enemy combatant" who was a US citizen did have the Fifth Amendment right to appear before a judge or "neutral decision-maker."  Rather than bring Hamdi to court, the Bush Administration stripped him of his US citizenship and deported him to Saudi Arabia where he had spent time as a child.

Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988)
In 1988 the US Supreme Court gave school officials the authority to censor student expression in curricular and extra-curricular activities that could "reasonably" be related to the school. 

The case arose in 1983 when the principal of Hazelwood East High School in St. Louis censored the Spectrum, the student newspaper, by removing the middle pages because he didn't like two stories on pregnancy and divorce. He took this action in spite of the fact that the statement of policy of the journalism class which produced the paper and School Board policy embraced the Tinker standard upholding student rights to freedom of expression unless that expression substantially disrupted the running of the school or invaded the rights of others.   He later argued that he found the articles were inappropriate for young teenagers and involved possible invasions of privacy.  (When the articles were published two years later by a St. Louis paper, few people could figure out what the fuss was all about).  The principal did not consult with students before removing the two articles he didn't like and four others that appeared on the same pages, and then sending the paper to the printer. 

When editors Cathy Kuhlmeier and Leslie Smart went to court on grounds that their First Amendment rights had been violated, the district court upheld the school, but the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled for the students.  Then the US Supreme Court, by 5-3, declared that the principal had a "valid educational purpose" for censoring the paper.  The opinion written by Justice White maintained that "A school need not tolerate student speech that is inconsistent with its basic educational mission, even though the government could not censor similar speech outside the school...Educators do not offend the First Amendment by exercising editorial control over the style and content of student speech in school-sponsored expressive activities so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns."

In its decision, the Supreme Court majority stated that it is not overturning its "Tinker standard."  Individual students still have the right to express their personal views on school premises.   But, the court said, school officials do have the authority to regulate "school-sponsored publications, theatrical productions, and other expressive activities that students, parents, and members of the public might reasonably perceive to bear the imprimatur of the school.  These activities may fairly be characterized as part of the school curriculum, whether or not they occur in a traditional classroom setting, so long as they are supervised by faculty members and designed to impart particular knowledge or skills to student participants and audiences."      

In his dissent, Justice William Brennan did not buy the argument that there should be a difference between individual student expression protected by the Tinker standard and "school-sponsored expression."  Calling the principal's action a case of "brutal censorship," he declared, " no way furthers the curricular purposes of a student newspaper, unless one believes that the purpose of the school newspaper is to teach students that the press ought never report bad news, express unpopular views, or print a thought that might upset its sponsors...The Court opens its analysis in this case by purporting to reaffirm Tinker's time-tested proposition that public-school students 'do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.'  That is an ironic introduction to an opinion that denudes high-school students of much of the First Amendment protection that Tinker itself prescribed.  Instead of 'teach(ing) children to respect the diversity of ideas that is fundamental to the American system,' and 'that our Constitution is a living reality, not parchment preserved under glass,' the Court today 'teach(es) youth to discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes.'  The young men and women of Hazelwood East expected a civics lesson, but not the one the Court teaches them today."

Listen to the oral arguments:

Hirabayashi v. United States (1943)
Gordon Kiyoshi Hirabayashi, a student at the University of Washington, was convicted of breaking the 8 PM – 6 AM curfew to which people of Japanese descent were subjected in "military areas" (the entire West Coast and southern Arizona) before being removed to internment camps.  The Supreme Court upheld his conviction and upheld the legitimacy of the curfew.  The court declared that "the adoption by government, in the crisis of war and of threatened invasion, of measures for the public safety, based upon the recognition of facts and circumstances which indicate that a group of one national extraction may menace that safety more than others, is not wholly beyond the limits of the Constitution."

Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project (2010)

The Supreme Court upheld by 6 – 3 a 1996 law (modified later by the USA PATRIOT Act) that made it a federal crime to provide “material support” to foreign groups designated as terrorist organizations, punishable by up to 15 years in prison and a $50,000 fine.  In this case of 12 years’ duration involving two designated terrorist organizations, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka, the plaintiffs, including the Humanitarian Law Project, argued that the law was unconstitutionally vague, and that it criminalized speech or conduct even if the “support” is aimed only at legal activities, peaceful dispute resolution training, or humanitarian actions. The Humanitarian Law Project had been planning to train members of the PKK to use international law to peacefully resolve disputes, and other plaintiffs had wanted to help the LTTE petition the United Nations for humanitarian relief in the wake of the tsunami that had destroyed large areas of coastal Sri Lanka.  But the Court held that the statute's prohibitions on "expert advice," "training," "service," and "personnel" were not vague, and did not violate speech or associational rights as applied to the intended activities.  Plaintiffs could still engage in “independent advocacy” but could not “coordinate” their activities with terrorist groups.  The Court majority further argued that such activity could help legitimize terrorist groups, which in turn would help further their violent means.

The majority decision, penned by Chief Justice Roberts, was strongly criticized as a violation of the First Amendment in a dissent by Justice Breyer, which Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor signed.  It was also denounced by human rights organizations and activists, including the former president Jimmy Carter who stated,

"We are disappointed that the Supreme Court has upheld a law that inhibits the work of human rights and conflict resolution groups. The 'material support law' – which is aimed at putting an end to terrorism – actually threatens our work and the work of many other peacemaking organizations that must interact directly with groups that have engaged in violence. The vague language of the law leaves us wondering if we will be prosecuted for our work to promote peace and freedom."

In Re Gault (1967)
Because 15-year-old Gerald Francis Gault had previously been put on probation, an Arizona Juvenile Court judge had no hesitation in committing him to State Industrial School until the age of 21 when he was accused of making an obscene phone call.  The US Supreme Court decided to take the case in order to review the adequacy of Arizona 's delinquency proceedings.  It decided that the juvenile court was basically a "kangaroo court" and that juveniles should have all the due process protections of adults in criminal proceedings.

Ingraham v. Wright (1977)
A Florida statute and Dade Country School Board policy provided for the punishment of students with one to five "licks" of a flat wooden paddle measuring less that two feet long, a few inches wide and half an inch thick.   During the 1970-1971 school year at Drew High School in Miami, after eighth grader James Ingraham was slow to respond to a teacher's instructions, he was given more than 20 blows while being held over a table.  He needed medical attention after the beating and missed 11 days of school.  Another Drew High School student, ninth grader Roosevelt Andrews, was hit on the arms after some minor infraction of the rules, and could not use one of his arms for a week. 

The students brought a lawsuit claiming that the paddling they received was a violation of the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.  They lost in the lower courts and then appealed to the US Supreme Court. 

The Supreme Court rejected the students' arguments.  The court maintained that there was "historical and contemporary approval of reasonable corporal punishment."  From the days of the American Revolution, moderate force had been used by teachers to discipline students.  The court pointed out that corporal punishment remained an accepted practice in most states  At the time the court issued its decision, in 1977, only two states (Massachusetts and New Jersey) had banned corporal punishment.  The court also maintained that the Eighth Amendment was intended to protect prisoners, not students in schools:  "The openness of the public school and its supervision by the community afford significant safeguards against the kinds of abuses from which the Eighth Amendment protects the prisoner."

Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico
After a "Book Review Committee" composed of parents and school staff proposed removing certain books from library shelves in the Island Trees Union Free School District, 17-year-old Steven Pico and four other students went to court charging that they were being denied their First Amendment rights.  In 1982, the US Supreme Court ruled that because school libraries provide an "environment especially appropriate for the recognition of the First Amendment rights of students," officials could not "remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books."  But authorities do have "significant discretion" to decide what goes in the libraries in the first place. 

Among the books slated for removal were Bernard Malamud's The Fixer, Desmond Morris' The Naked Ape, and Pin Thomas' Down these Mean Streets.  The Committee wanted some books – such as Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s Slaughterhouse Five and Richard Wright's Black Boy to be made available to students only if they had their parents' approval.   Some members of the School Board who objected to these and other books called them "anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic and just plain filthy."

  1. Listen to the oral argument:
  2. Read the decision:

Katz v. United States (1967)
With its decision in this case the Supreme Court reversed Olmstead v. U.S. and brought electronic surveillance within the Fourth Amendment's prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures.  The case involved a listening device installed in a public telephone booth.  Government agents listened in only when the suspect was using the phone.  The court ruled that a conversation was a "thing" which could be seized and that the government agents needed to get a warrant before installing the wiretap.


Korematsu v. United States (1944)
Fred Toyosaburo Korematsu, an American citizen of Japanese descent, refused to leave San Leandro , California and report to an assembly center prior to being removed to an internment camp.  The entire West Coast and southern Arizona had been designated as "military zones" from which Japanese-Americans were excluded.  The Supreme Court by 6-3 ruled that the president and Congress did not go beyond their war powers when it excluded people of Japanese descent and restricted the rights of Japanese-Americans.  The court said that the need to protect against espionage outweighed Korematsu's rights.  Writing for the majority, Justice Hugo Black denied that discrimination on racial grounds lay behind the exclusion order and argued instead that "there was evidence of disloyalty" on the part of some people of Japanese descent.  He acknowledged the hardships that removal caused, but said "hardships are a part of war."  In a strongly worded dissent, Justice Frank Murphy declared that exclusion on the basis of military necessity in the absence of martial law goes over "the very brink of constitutional power and falls into the ugly abyss of racism."  He also wrote that the majority opinion amounted to the "legalization of racism."  The Korematsu ruling has never been reversed by the Supreme Court, although in 1983 Fred Korematsu's conviction for refusing to be interned was overturned by a federal district court judge.

Lawrence v. Texas (2003)
In a 6-3 ruling that for the first time enshrines a broad constitutional right to sexual privacy, the Supreme Court struck down a Texas law banning private consensual sex between adults of the same gender.   This historic gay rights decision represented a reversal of a 1986 Court ruling that states could punish homosexuality.

Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire (2007)
The Court restricted the ability of female employees to sue their employers for gender discrimination.  In order to sue for pay discrimination, the Court said, employees have to file their complaints within 180 days of their pay being set. This 5-4 ruling will keep many women from taking their discrimination claims to court since in many cases they are not aware that they are being discriminated against within that set time period.


Lee v. Weisman (1992)
In 1992, the US Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that school prayers at school graduations violated the First Amendment's separation of Church and State.  This was the first major school prayer decision by the Supreme Court since it struck down Alabama's public school "moment of silence" in 1985.  In 1962 in Engel v. Vitale the US Supreme Court had first ruled that non-denominational prayers in schools violated the First Amendment.

Lee v. Weisman arose in 1989, when Daniel Weisman brought a lawsuit against Nathan Bishop Middle School in Providence after Rabbi Leslie Gutterman delivered a nondenominational invocation at his daughter's graduation.  Mr. Weisman had also objected three year's earlier when a Baptist minister delivered a prayer at his elder daughter's graduation from the same school.  The school did not respond to his complaint.    

Both a district court and the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit agreed with Daniel Weisman that the use of prayer during graduation ceremonies violated the First Amendment.  But when the Supreme Court accepted the case for review, it seemed possible that the court might use it as an opportunity to revise the so-called "Lemon test" and permit prayer in schools.  The "Lemon test" is the standard that had guided the Supreme Court since it decided the case of Lemon v. Kurtzman in 1971.  Under the Lemon standard, a practice or statute was only constitutional if it had a secular purpose, neither promoted nor hurt religion, and if it did not foster "an excessive governmental entanglement with religion." By a single vote the Supreme Court in Lee v. Weisman left the Lemon standard more or less intact.

  1. Listen to the oral argument:
  2. Read the decision:   

Loving v. Virginia (1967)
Mildred Jeter, a Black woman, and Richard Loving, a white man, were residents of Virginia where interracial marriage was barred by law.  They got married in 1958 in the District of Columbia .  When they returned to Virginia , they were arrested and sentenced to a year in prison for violating the ban.  The US Supreme Court unanimously overturned their conviction.  Stating that marriage was a basic civil right, the court ruled that "the freedom to marry, or not to marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State."

Mapp v. Ohio (1961)
After police forcibly entered the home of Dolree Mapp in search of a fugitive and then searched her entire home without a search warrant, she was arrested and charged with possessing illegal obscene (pornographic) materials.  The US Supreme Court ruled that evidence seized without a properly executed search warrant had to be excluded from state as well as federal courts.  This is known as the "exclusionary rule."

Marbury v. Madison (1803)
This case established the principle of “judicial review” – the role of the court in deciding when a law or regulation was “unconstitutional.” In the last days of John Adams’ presidency, William Marbury was appointed as justice of the peace of the District of Columbia . When the Jefferson administration took over, it refused to confirm the last minute appointments made by its predecessor and repealed the Judiciary Act of 1800 under which new justices had been created. Marbury sued, asking the Supreme Court to issue a “writ of mandamus” to Secretary of State James Madison, ordering him to confirm his commission as justice of the peace.  Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that the commission should be delivered, but also struck down the part of the Judiciary Act as “unconstitutional” on the grounds that the Constitution did not give the court the power to issue such “writs of mandamus.”  The case established that the Supreme Court could decide when Congress or the president violated the Constitution, and gave the court the final say on what the Constitution meant in practice.

McCulloch v. Maryland (1819
In 1816, Congress chartered the Second Bank of the United States .  It was located in Maryland . In 1818, the state of Maryland passed legislation imposing taxes on the bank notes. James W. McCulloch, the cashier of the Baltimore branch of the bank, refused to pay the tax. Both parties went to court in a case that raised these questions: did Congress have the authority to establish the bank and did the Maryland law unconstitutionally interfere with congressional powers? In a unanimous decision in 1819, the Supreme Court held that Congress had the power to incorporate the bank and that Maryland could not tax instruments of the national government employed in the execution of constitutional powers.  Chief Justice Marshall wrote that Congress possessed unenumerated (or implied) powers not explicitly outlined in the Constitution.  “The Constitution [was] intended to endure for ages to come, and consequently to be adapted to the various crises of human affairs.”

Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education and
Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 (2007)
The Court struck down the student assignment plans in schools in Louisville, Kentucky, and Seattle, Washington, on the grounds that they discriminated against white students who were prevented from attending the schools of their choice.  Writing for the 5-4 majority, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. argued that rejecting the plans was consistent with the Brown v. Board of Education landmark Supreme Court case that banned segregation in schools.   He wrote, "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race."  Dissenting justices argued that these rulings threatened the promise of Brown v. Board of Education and could accelerate the re-segregation of schools.  Justice Anthony Kennedy voted with the majority but disagreed with the Chief Justice that Brown and the Constitution require school authorities to accept "the status quo of racial isolation in schools."   In his view, school districts could use some kind of race-conscious measure to confront segregated schools – but it couldn't involve the use of racial classification.


Milliken v. Bradley (1974)
The Supreme Court by 5-4 decided that students cannot be bused across school district lines from the largely Black schools of the City of Detroit to the largely white schools of the surrounding suburbs.  If more than one school district is involved, there cannot be a metropolitan-wide desegregation plan.  The court said that before school district boundaries could be crossed in this way, "it must be shown that racially discriminatory acts of state or local school districts, or the single school district have been a substantial cause of inter-district segregation."  The cause cannot be the fact of residential segregation.

Minersville School District v. Gobitis (1940)
In 1935 two Jehovah's Witness students, 12-year-old Lillian Gobitis and her 10-year-old brother William were expelled from school for refusing to salute the flag in their Minersville, Pennsylvania school.  Saluting the flag violated their religious beliefs because it was a form of "idolatry" or worship of "graven images."

After both the federal district and appeals court decided in the students' favor, the US Supreme Court in its 1940 decision in Minersville School District v. Gobitis ruled 8-1 in favor of the school.   The Court held that instilling patriotism was a legitimate goal and that schools should train students in "a common feeling for a common country."  It was not the role of the Court to interfere with educational policy or to be "the school board for the country."

Minor v. Happersett (1874)
Virginia Minor was a member of Susan B. Anthony's National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) who tried to vote in Missouri, but was blocked by the registrar on the grounds that voting was limited to males by the state constitution.  Because married women could not on their own initiate legal actions, her husband joined her in bringing a lawsuit arguing that her rights of citizenship had been violated.  The US Supreme Court ruled in 1874 that voting was not among the privileges guaranteed citizens by the Fourteenth Amendment.  After that decision, the NWSA adopted the new strategy of working for a constitutional amendment that would grant women the suffrage.  Such an amendment (the Nineteenth) was finally passed in 1920, 46 years after the Minor v. Happersett decision.

Miranda v. Arizona (1966)
Ernest Miranda was arrested in Arizona , and after being interrogated by police, confessed to robbery, kidnapping and rape.   He was convicted on basis of his confession, since no other evidence was presented in court.  The Supreme Court ordered a retrial.  In its decision it formulated what is known as the "Miranda Warning" – anyone being held by the police must be informed before being interrogated that he has the right to remain silent; that anything he says can be used against him in a court of law; that he has the right to have an attorney present; and that an attorney will be appointed if he cannot afford to pay one.   The court stated that if, at any time prior to or during questioning, the person indicates that he wishes to remain silent, the interrogation must cease.  "If the individual states that he wants an attorney, the interrogation must cease until an attorney is present. At that time, the individual must have an opportunity to confer with the attorney and to have him present during any subsequent questioning."  Miranda was retried without his confession being used in court.  On the basis of other evidence he was again convicted.

In 2010, the Supreme Court re-examined the Miranda Warning in Berghuis v. Thompkins, and ruled that the suspect must unambiguously invoke his right to remain silent. And without this explicit statement, the police can assume that he has waived the rights. This was a narrowly split decision of 5-4.

Morse v. Frederick (2007)

In 2002, as the Olympic torch was being carried through Juneau, Alaska, classes at a nearby high school were dismissed so that students could attend the parade.  Across the street was 18-year old Joseph Frederick, a high school senior who stayed home from school.  He unfurled a 14-foot-long banner on which was written "Bong Hits 4 Jesus."  The school principal immediately confiscated the banner, saying it was promoting drug use. She also suspended Frederick for 10 days.  Frederick went to the ACLU which argued that his First Amendment rights had been violated since the banner did not cause disruption or invade the rights of others.  The district court sided with the principal, but its decision was reversed by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.  That decision was appealed to the US Supreme Court. 

On June 25, 2007, the US Supreme Court ruled 5-4 against Frederick.  The majority ruled that the school could punish the student for putting up a sign which seemed to be advocating illegal drug use, and that the event was a school-sanctioned activity even though it did not occur on school grounds.  "We hold," wrote Chief Justice John Roberts, "that schools may take steps to safeguard those entrusted to their care from speech that can reasonably be regarded as encouraging illegal drug use." 

In his strongly worded dissent, Justice Stevens declared "that the school's interest in protecting its students from exposure to speech 'reasonably regarded as promoting illegal drug use' cannot justify disciplining Frederick for his attempt to make an ambiguous statement to a television audience simply because it contained an oblique reference to drugs.  The First Amendment demands more, indeed, much more." 


Also the First Amendment activity for students at

New Jersey v. T.L.O (1985)
In New Jersey v. T.L.O. the US Supreme Court ruled for the first time when and how students could be searched in schools. T.L.O. were the initials of a 14-year-old girl at Piscataway High School who, with another student, was suspected of smoking in the bathroom, which was a violation of a school rule.  A teacher took both students to the office of the Assistant Vice Principal Theodore Choplick.  One admitted smoking but T.L.O. denied it.  Mr. Choplick insisted on searching her purse, and found a package of cigarette rolling papers, some marijuana, a pipe, some empty plastic bags, money, and a list of names.  He then notified her mother and the police.  After T.L.O confessed to selling marijuana at the school, delinquency charges were brought against her.  She argued in juvenile court that the evidence, and her confession, should be thrown out under the "exclusionary rule" because there was no warrant or "probable cause" to search her and her Fourth Amendment rights had been violated.  The juvenile court decided there was a "reasonable" basis to conduct the search, and sentenced her to a year's probation.

The US Supreme Court then reviewed the constitutionality of the search.  It asked: "How, then, should we strike the balance between the schoolchild's legitimate expectations of privacy and the school's equally legitimate need to maintain an environment in which learning can take place?"  Ruling that the requirement of a warrant before a search could take place was "unsuited to the school   environment," the Court decided that "a search of a student by a teacher or other school official will be justified when there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that the search will turn up evidence that the student has violated or is violating either the law or the rules of the school." Students could not simply be searched at random at the whim of the school.  A search "will be permissible in its scope when the measures adopted are reasonably related to the objectives of the search and not excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction."

Dissenting justices in the 6-3 ruling were troubled by the vague "reasonableness" standard laid down by the majority.  They said its "only definite content is that it is not the same test as the 'probable cause' standard found in the text of the Fourth Amendment.  In adopting this unclear, unprecedented, and unnecessary departure from generally applicable Fourth Amendment standards, the Court carves out a broad exception to standards that this Court has developed over years of considering Fourth Amendment problems." 

In the words of Justice Stevens, "The schoolroom is the first opportunity most citizens have to experience the power of government...the values they learn there, they take with them in life.  One of our most cherished ideals is the one contained in the Fourth Amendment: that the government may not intrude on the personal privacy of its citizens without a warrant or compelling circumstance.  The Court's decision today is a curious moral for the Nation's youth... ."

New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964)
After Birmingham law enforcement officers sued the New York Times for libeling them in a paid political advertisement that it published in its pages, the US Supreme Court ruled that libel laws cannot be used to "cast a pall of fear and timidity" on the press and that a public official could not recover damages for libel unless he can prove actual malice.  In other words, he must prove that a statement was made "with the knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not."

Olmstead v. United States   (1928)
Roy Olmstead was a suspected bootlegger and whose conversations were wiretapped without judicial approval. He was convicted from the evidence used from these tapes. The Supreme Court held that his Fourth Amendment rights were not violated when his telephone was tapped since only the physical examination of tangible objects – not listening into conversations – constituted a search.  Neither was the wiretap a violation of his Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination. This case was reversed by Katz v. U.S. (1967).

Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)
In June of 1892, Homer Plessy tested the segregation policy on Louisiana’s trains.  He was arrested and jailed for sitting in the car reserved for whites on the East Louisiana Railroad. Although he was one-eighth ‘black’ and seven-eighths ‘white,’ he was considered ‘black’ according to the South’s  ‘one-drop rule’ under which an individual was considered ‘black’ if she or he had any African ancestry. Plessy appealed to the Supreme Court, but the Court ruled against him, holding that racial segregation is legal if facilities for the races were “separate but equal.” Justice John Marshall Harlan, the lone dissenter, wrote “the thin disguise of ‘equal’ accommodation…will not mislead anyone nor atone for the wrong this day done.”

In this period, the Supreme Court also ruled unanimously that citizenship did not give people the privilege of voting, that much of the civil rights legislation passed by the Reconstruction Congress was unconstitutional, and that a Mississippi plan to take the vote away from black people was NOT unconstitutional.  When the Court in Cumming v. Georgia ruled in 1899 that a white high school did not have to be closed because a school district did not have the funds to maintain a school for African Americans, the myth of "separate but equal" was fully exposed.

Plyer v. Doe (1982)
The Texas State Legislature passed a law in 1975 withholding funds for the education of children who were not "legally admitted" to the United States and authorizing schools to deny them admittance.  In 1977, a "class action" lawsuit was brought on behalf of children of Mexican origin who were being denied an education because they were "undocumented aliens"  - that is, they had entered the country without lawful immigration procedures.   

In its 1982 decision in Plyer v. Doe, the US Supreme Court by a 5-4 vote sided with the students.  The majority pointed out that the Fourteenth Amendment ensures "equal protection of the laws" for all persons, not all citizens. "Whatever his status under the immigration laws, an alien is surely a 'person' in any ordinary sense of that term.  Aliens, even aliens whose presence in this country is unlawful, have long been recognized as 'persons' guaranteed due process of the law by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments."  The decision goes on to discuss the "pivotal role of education" in the life of a child and the nation, even though it is not a "right" granted to individuals by the Constitution.  It declares that forcing these children to endure the "stigma of illiteracy" serves no one's interest.  "[W]hatever savings might be achieved by denying these children an education, they are wholly insubstantial in light of the costs involved to these children, the State, and the Nation," the court said.

Pottawatomie v. Earls (2002)
In 2002 the Supreme Court decided a second case involving drug testing of participants in extra-curricular activity.  (It had already decided the case of Vernonia v. Acton).  

Lindsay and Lacey Earls wanted to participate in the choir and Future Farmers of America at Tecumseh High School.  When the school in 1998 required random drug-testing in all extra-curricular activities involving competition with other schools, the girls were subjected to urinalysis on several occasions.  They always tested negative.     

Finally, they brought a lawsuit against the school and lost in the federal district court.  They appealed to the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.  It agreed that drug-testing students who engaged in extracurricular activities other than athletics (where the Supreme Court had already ruled in favor of drug testing) was a violation of their Fourth Amendment rights.

The school district appealed to the Supreme Court.   In a 5-4 ruling, it upheld the school's drug-testing program.  The court majority said the drug policy was "entirely reasonable" given the "nation-wide epidemic of drug use."  Writing in dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued that "the particular testing program upheld today is not reasonable, it is capricious, even perverse" since it was targeting motivated students who were "least likely to be at risk from illicit drugs and their damaging effects."

Although the ruling addressed "competitive" extra-curricular activities, it opened the door wide to drug testing in all extra-curricular activities, and could lead to the random testing of all students.  Critics fear it would be counterproductive, causing students to drop out of the very activities that could keep them engaged and away from drugs.

  1. See Lindsay Earls talk about her case
  2. Read the decision:

Rasul v. Bush (2004)
Beginning early in 2002, the US military transferred people it considered "unlawful enemy combatants" to the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay which the US leased in perpetuity from Cuba beginning early in the 20th century.  By holding them secretly in Cuba , the government argued that they could not have access to US courts to challenge their indefinite detention.  This argument was rejected by the US Supreme Court which ruled 6-3 that since the US had "complete jurisdiction and control" over the Guantanamo base, the detainees were not in a legal black hole, and did have the right to bring habeas corpus claims in US courts.

Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978)
Allan Bakke was a white student in his 30s with a medical aptitude score below that required for regular admission.  When he did not get into the University of California 's medical school at Davis , he went to court.   He argued that the school had wrongly reserved 16 out of 100 places for African Americans, Mexican-Americans and other minorities and that less rigorous standards were required for these students.  A divided Supreme Court ruled that the set aside provisions ("quotas") were unconstitutional, and that Bakke should be admitted.  It said race could be a factor in admissions, but could not be the deciding factor.

Roe v. Wade (1973)
In this now threatened landmark case, the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional a state law that made abortion a criminal offense on the grounds that it violated the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment which protected the right of privacy.  The right of privacy included the qualified right to terminate a pregnancy, depending on the stage of pregnancy involved.  After six months of a pregnancy, the state has the right to restrict abortion except where necessary to preserve the life of the mother.

Safford Unified School District v. April Redding (2009)
In one of the biggest victories for student rights in two decades, the US Supreme Court ruled 8-1 on June 25, 2009 that the strip search of 13-year-old Arizona student violated her Fourth Amendment Right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. The sole dissenter was Justice Clarence Thomas.

In October 2003, Savana Redding was identified by another student at Safford Middle School, which had a “zero tolerance” policy for drugs, as the source of prescription-strength Ibuprofen pills. Savana was told to go to the office of the assistant principal where she was asked about the pills, each one the equivalent of two Advils.

She said she knew nothing about them. The assistant principal and an administrative assistant then searched her backpack and found nothing.

At this point she was taken to the school nurse’s office where her clothes were searched for pills. When nothing was found in her outer garments, she was told to strip to her bra and underpants, which she then had to pull to the side and shake. No pills were found.

Savana was so humiliated by this experience that she never again returned to the school. Her mother, April Redding, filed suit against the school officials. Eventually, with the help of the ACLU, the case reached the Supreme Court. Justice Souter delivered the majority opinion.

Applying the ”reasonable suspicion” standard laid down in the Supreme Court’s 1985 T.L.O. ruling, he found that the school officials had the right to search her backpack and outer clothes. But the search of her underwear was “excessively intrusive.”

“What was missing from the suspected facts that pointed to Savana,” Justice David Souter wrote, “was any indication of danger to the students from the power of the drugs or their quantity, and any reason to suppose that Savana was carrying pills in her underwear. We think that the combination of these deficiencies was fatal to finding the search reasonable.”

The Justices did not rule that strip searches were never legal in school. Instead, they found that there had to be a “reasonable suspicion of danger” and reasonable notion that underwear was being used to hide evidence of wrongdoing for such a search to be constitutional.

The Court gave the school officials who conducted the search qualified immunity – barring them from being sued – on the grounds that the law regarding such searches was not clear at the time they searched Savana, since different courts around the country had ruled in different ways on the matter of strip searches. The case was sent back to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to decide whether the school district as a whole could be held liable.

  1. Listen to the oral argument:
  2. Read the decision:

Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe (2000)
The US Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that overtly Christian student-led prayer over the public address system at public high school football games was a violation of the First Amendment's  Establishment Clause.  The case had been brought by two families, one Mormon and the other Catholic.  The court's decision states that school sponsorship of a religious message – such as prayers delivered by students over public-address systems at football games – is unconstitutional because it sends the message to "non adherents that they are outsiders...and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders." 

  1. Listen to the oral argument:
  2. Read the decision:

Scales v. United States (1961)
By 5-4 the Supreme Court held that a group did not have the First Amendment right of freedom to speech and association if it advocated the violent overthrow of the government.   Nor did the Fifth Amendment's due process clause protect an individual who belonged to an organization that was conspiring to overthrow the government by force, even if there was no likelihood of immediate action being taken.

Scottsboro Cases (1932, 1935)
In 1931 nine Black youths ranging from the age of 13-21 were convicted of raping two white women on a freight train in Scottsboro , Alabama . The verdict of their all-white jury was death for one and life in prison for the rest of the defendants.   Against a background of racial hysteria, the International Labor Defense (ILD) took up their cases.  The US Supreme Court handed down two rulings that overturned the convictions on the grounds that their Sixth Amendment right to a trial of their peers and to representation by counsel had been violated.  By 1937, charges against five of them had been dropped and the others were eventually paroled.  Clarence Norris, who broke his parole in 1946 when he fled the state, was pardoned by Alabama in 1976.

Schenck v. United States (1919)
Charles Schenck was arrested for violating the Espionage Act of 1917 by mailing pamphlets to men that had been drafted saying the government had no right to send them to kill people in other countries. Schenck said his First Amendment rights had been violated. The Supreme Court decided against Schenck, and established the “clear and present danger test.”  The opinion written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes stated that “the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.”  The question, he wrote, “is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent."  Schenck’s act created a clear and present danger for the ability of the government to fight the war. His words, though tolerable in peacetime, were not protected in times of war.

Stone v. Graham (1980)
The US Supreme Court decided that a Kentucky law requiring the posting of the Ten Commandments in each classroom in the state was unconstitutional since it was plainly religious and had no secular purpose.   The court stated, "This is not a case in which the Ten Commandments are integrated into the school curriculum, where the Bible may constitutionally be used in an appropriate study of history, civilization, ethics, comparative religion, or the like.  Posting of religious texts on the wall serves no such educational function."

Stromberg v. California (1931)
Yetta Stromberg was a 19-year-old counselor at a California camp which attracted people who were either communists or sympathized with communist beliefs. Every day Stromberg would instruct her campers to hold up a red flag in support of the working class. The Better American Federation (BAF), a group whose goal was to eliminate what it believed to be dangerous dissent, had the camp searched.  After the search turned up red flags and communist readings, Stromberg and others were arrested and prosecuted.  Stromberg was convicted in state court. She appealed the conviction to the Supreme Court on the grounds that the 1919 California statute banning red flags outlawed the symbol of a legally recognized party. In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court struck down the statute as unconstitutional.  It said the peaceful display of a red flag as a "sign, symbol or emblem of opposition to organized government" is protected by the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech.

Swann v. Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education (1971)
In this case involving a single school district which combined the city of Charlotte , North Carolina and largely white suburbs, the Supreme Court ruled that busing and the creation of magnet schools were appropriate tools to desegregate education.

Terry v. Ohio (1968)
The US Supreme Court ruled that when an experienced police officer has "reasonable suspicion" to think a crime is about to be committed, he may "frisk" or pat the outer clothing of a suspect.   If he finds weapons, they can be admitted as evidence.  For a "Terry stop" to be legal, "reasonable suspicion" must be based on articulable facts, not a mere hunch.

Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969)
By a vote of 7-2, the US Supreme Court upheld the First Amendment rights of students to protest the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands to school. The ruling opened the door for an expansion of student rights around the country.

A few days before the armbands were worn by John Tinker, aged 15, his sister Mary Beth, aged 13, and their friend, Christopher Eckhardt, aged 16, the principals of Des Moines schools adopted a policy that any student who wore an armband would be asked to remove it, and would be sent home if he or she refused to do so.  When they refused to take their armbands off, the three students were sent home.  They did not return to school until after the planned period for the protest had expired. 

The students then went to court, arguing that armbands were a form of symbolic speech and their First Amendment rights to freedom of expression had been violated by their suspensions.  Both the district court and the appeals court said their constitutional rights had not been violated. But the US Supreme Court, with Justice Abe Fortas writing the majority opinion, disagreed.   He declared: "In our system, state-operated schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism.  School officials do not possess absolute authority over their students.  Students in school as well as out of school are 'persons' under our Constitution.  They are possessed of fundamental rights which the State must respect..."  Censoring student expression is impermissible, the court ruled, unless it "materially and substantially" disrupts the educational process or invades the rights of others.  This restraint on student censorship is known as the "Tinker standard."

  1. Learn more from John Tinker, Mary Beth Tinker and Chris Eckhardt
  2. Listen to the oral arguments:
  3. Read the decision:

United States v. O'Brien (1968)
In March 1966, during the Vietnam War, David Paul O'Brien and three other men burned their draft cards on the steps of a courthouse in Boston .  O'Brien was arrested by an FBI agent and charged and convicted under a section of the Selective Service Act that made it a crime to "knowingly destroy" a draft card.  The Supreme Court upheld his conviction on the grounds that preventing the destruction of draft cards furthered an important government interest that justified a restriction of the First Amendment.

Vernonia v. Acton (1995)
In 1991, a seventh grader James Acton challenged the drug-testing program initiated by his school in Vernonia, Oregon.  The program required students to provide a urine sample for drug testing before they could participate in athletics, and afterwards do so on a random basis.  Acton and his parents maintained that this kind of testing, without any suspicion that the individual being tested had done anything wrong, was a violation of a student's Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

The Actons lost their case in the district court, but won in the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.  The school district then appealed to the Supreme Court.  By the time the case was heard, nearly five years after the drug-testing program was initiated, there had been no more than two or three positive urine test results – which didn't seem to indicate that there was a major drug program in the small town. 

The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that the students' Fourth Amendment rights were outweighed by the school's interest in fighting drugs.  The court said that since student athletes shower and change clothes in front of each other, urine testing wasn't a big invasion of privacy.  And because athletes served as "role models" for the student community, it was important for them to be drug free.   

An important dissent was written by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.  She expressed her concern that the court had thrown out the Fourth Amendment by doing away with the requirement that there had to be "individualised suspicion" – the suspicion that an individual had done something wrong – in order to search that person.    

The Supreme Court ruling opened the door for schools to institute drug-testing programs for after school sports programs. 

  1. Listen to the oral arguments:
  2. Read the decision:

Wallace v. Jaffree (1985)
After the US Supreme Court had ruled that prayers in schools were unconstitutional, the Alabama legislature tried to get around that ruling by passing a law authorizing teachers to start each school day with a "moment of silent meditation or voluntary prayer."  But in the 1985 case of Wallace v. Jaffree, the Court ruled this law was unconstitutional.  "Silent meditation" was really about religion, the Court said, and since the law lacked a secular purpose, it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

  1. Listen to the oral arguments:
  2. Read the decision:

Ware v. Hylton (1796)
The Supreme Court for the first time declared a state law unconstitutional.  The case involved the debt a Virginian owed to a British subject, and US treaty obligations under the Treaty of Paris which ended the War of Independence.  In its ruling, the Supreme Court struck down a Virginia law, and said that debts had to be paid in gold or its equivalent, and not in state currency.


Yates v. United States (1957)
Fourteen members of the Communist Party in California were convicted under the Smith Act, which made it unlawful to advocate the overthrow of the US government by force.  They argued that they were not involved in active attempts to overthrow the government, and that their mere advocacy of certain ideas should be protected by the First Amendment.  The US Supreme Court agreed, and overturned their convictions.  In its ruling, the court drew a distinction between advocating an abstract doctrine or idea – which was protected speech – and the advocacy of a particular form of action aimed at overthrowing the government, which was not.  The court ruled that people could only be successfully prosecuted under the Smith Act if it was proved that they incited others to a specific action aimed at the forcible overthrow of the government.

Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company v. Sawyer (1952)
This case, which is frequently referred to during current debates over the extent of presidential power, arose when the US was at war in Korea , although a formal declaration of war had not been issued by Congress.  When the United Steel Workers of America threatened to strike, President Harry Truman decided to seize the steel mills so the arms industry would not be affected.  The steel mill owners immediately went to court and the Supreme Court quickly heard the case.  It decided that the president had overstepped his powers since he had not been given the authority to seize private property under either Article 2 of the US Constitution or by an act of Congress.  The court ordered the steel mills returned to their owners.


Copyright 2006, ACLU of Massachusetts