The Supreme Court’s decision today in Safford Unified School District #1 et al. v. Redding was a victory for privacy and decency. The Court held that a middle school violated the Fourth Amendment rights of a thirteen-year-old girl by strip searching her in a failed effort to find Ibuprofen pills and an over-the-counter painkiller.
The Cato Institute filed an amicus brief, joined by the Rutherford Institute and the Goldwater Institute, opposing such abuses of school officials’ authority. The search in this case should have ended with the student’s backpack and pockets; forcing a teenage girl to pull her bra and panties away from her body for visual inspection is an invasion of privacy that must be reserved for extreme cases. School officials should be authorized to conduct such a search only when they have credible evidence that the student is in possession of objects posing a danger to the school and that the student has hidden them in a place that only a strip search will uncover.
Today’s decision should not come as a surprise. School officials were not granted unlimited police power in the seminal student search case, New Jersey v. T.L.O. Justice Stevens explored the limits of school searches in his partial concurrence and partial dissent, specifically mentioning strip searches. “To the extent that deeply intrusive searches are ever reasonable outside the custodial context, it surely must only be to prevent imminent, and serious harm.”
The Fourth Amendment exists to preserve a balance between the individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy and the state’s need for order and security. Unnecessarily traumatizing students with invasive and humiliating breaches of personal privacy upsets this balance. Today’s decision restores reasonable limits to student searches and provides valuable guidance to school officials.