Court won't hear drug-test case Justices refuse to rule on random checks of students in Indiana

October 06, 1998|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- With many public schools edging closer to imposing schoolwide drug tests, the Supreme Court refused yesterday to interfere with the practice of random testing of students.

Under a random program, students are selected to have their urine tested even when there is no evidence that those students have used drugs.

Three years after allowing public schools to make random drug testing a mandatory condition for a student on a school sports team, the court refused to review an Indiana high school's wider program of testing as a condition for taking part in any extracurricular activities -- even the Future Homemakers of America.

The justices, opening their new term, also declined to second-guess school officials who punish a teacher for using offensive materials in a school activity.

And the court turned aside a plea by media groups that want to lift the veil of secrecy that lower courts have draped over the constitutional battles between President Clinton and independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr in the Monica Lewinsky investigation.

But the court took no action for now on another dispute related to the Lewinsky scandal: a dispute over Starr's demand for testimony by Secret Service agents who guard the president. Action on that case is expected soon.

Turning down the vast bulk of about 1,600 appeals brought to it over the summer recess, the court did agree to rule on six new disputes, including one over whether someone who collects disability benefits under Social Security can also sue for damages under the federal law that forbids discrimination against the disabled.

In the Indiana drug-testing case, parents and four of their children from Rushville, a rural town southeast of Indianapolis, contended that it violates students' privacy rights to force them to submit to random testing when there is no suspicion that a student has abused drugs.

They sought to rely upon a ruling last year by the justices. That ruling struck down a Georgia law that imposed mandatory drug tests on candidates seeking state office. The parents and students said the ruling indicated that the court would be skeptical about random testing without proof that drugs were a problem within the group to be tested.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals based in Chicago ruled in January, however, that the Supreme Court's 1995 decision allowing random tests of student athletes was broad enough to support the constitutionality of testing when a student wants to take part in a school activity that requires the student to be healthy.

Judges who dissented in the appeals court said the ruling "takes a long way toward condoning drug testing in the general school population," given that good health is as necessary for regular scholastic activities as for extracurricular programs.

The Indiana residents' appeal argued that school districts across the country are moving to expand drug testing, with some now planning to adopt random programs that would make mere attendance at school a basis for testing.

Nevertheless, the Supreme Court decided not to step in, and it gave no reasons for passing up the case.

Because the court's action yesterday was simply a denial of review, and not a ruling, the issue could return to the justices in the future. In the meantime, public schools are free to adopt wider testing plans.

Curriculum case

In the other school case the justices bypassed, a drama teacher in a Buncombe County, N.C., high school challenged her transfer after she had her students act in a play, titled "Independence," about a troubled family that includes a lesbian and a pregnant unmarried woman.

The teacher contended that to punish her for the content of her teaching materials interfered with her right of free speech. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals based in Richmond, Va., ruled in February that teachers do not have a First Amendment right in the selection of curriculum material and may be disciplined for what they choose to use.

In other actions yesterday:

The justices refused, without comment, to hear an appeal by 12 news organizations that claimed a constitutional right to sit in on hearings that focus on the White House's refusal to provide certain testimony in the Lewinsky investigation. A lower court ruled that those hearings were closely tied to secret grand jury proceedings and could be kept closed.

The court left intact a federal appeals court ruling in a New York City case that the exterior advertising space on city transit buses should be open to any message, unless transit officials can satisfy the toughest constitutional test for censorship.

In another New York City case, the justices refused to interfere with a city ordinance that bans topless dancing by female performers.

Turning down two cases related to show business, the court refused to block a lawsuit against Andrew Lloyd Webber that contends that Lloyd Webber copied the work of another composer -- Ray Repp of Churchville, Md. -- in one song in the musical "Phantom of the Opera," and it refused to revive a lawsuit by the widow of Fred Astaire that claims her husband's image was used illegally in a dance-instruction videotape.

The court agreed to review a Virginia death-row case, with the convicted murderer seeking to test the scope of prosecutors' duty to share with defense lawyers information that could help the accused person counter the criminal charges.

Pub Date: 10/06/98

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