New Jersey

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... ."

In June 2006 a federal magistrate ordered the Washington Township school district in New Jersey to pay the legal fees of Thomas Sypniewski, Jr., who was a high school senior when he was suspended in 2001 for wearing a T-shirt featuring "Top Ten Reasons You Might Be a Redneck Sports Fan."  The word "Redneck" was considered by the school to be a violation of its anti-harassment policy.  In 2002 the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit had ruled that the student's free expression rights were violated since the shirt had no history of causing a disruption at the school.

(The US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has jurisdiction over Delaware , Pennsylvania , and the Virgin Islands as well as New Jersey . )

The US Supreme Court in 1990 refused the appeal of Patterson v. FBI, a lower court ruling that Todd Patterson could not see the files which the FBI had been keeping on him since he was a sixth grader in New Jersey in 1983.  Then aged 11, Todd wrote to 169 countries for a world encyclopedia he was compiling.  A few months later, after his family suspected their phone was tapped, the FBI visited the house and demanded to know the purpose of Todd's letters.  In 1987 Todd needed security clearance to participate in a government internship program and wrote the FBI requesting to see his file.  He finally received a heavily censored version, and then took unsuccessful legal action to get access to the entire file.

In 2005, Oceanport school officials agreed to pay $117,500 to a middle school student for punishing him for the website he created on his own time and on his home computer criticizing his middle school. The student had been suspended for a week, and prevented from playing on the baseball team for a month and going on a school trip. The school presented no proof that his website caused a disruption in the school.

The US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld the action of school officials who, in 2000, suspended a five-year-old kindergartner from Wilson Elementary School in Sayreville, New Jersey for pointing his fingers and saying "I'm going to shoot you" during a game of "cops and robbers" at recess.   The US Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal in the case.

(The US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has jurisdiction over Delaware , Pennsylvania and the Virgin Islands as well as New Jersey . )


In 2009, a New Jersey appellate court ruled that a state law allowing local school boards to adopt uniform dress codes is not unconstitutional just because it fails to require that codes adopted by school districts include an opt-out provision. While the law does not make an opt-out option mandatory, it does say that districts may provide such an option, and if they do, students should not be discriminated against because their parents choose not to comply with the uniform policy.  The case arose when a student at Pleasantville High School was punished for refusing to comply with the school's dress code and his parents sued the school.  The court ruled that while parents have a fundamental right to control their child's upbringing and education, that right is qualified in a school setting. 

Two fifth graders in Bayonne, N.J. protested their school district’s new school uniform policy by wearing a button with a historical photo of Hitler Youth members and a “No School Uniforms” message superimposed on it. They were threatened with suspension. Their parents then sued the school on First Amendment grounds. The federal district court judge supported their free speech claims, ruling that the buttons had not caused any disruption in the school and the photo, which did not show swastikas, “might easily be mistaken for a historical photograph of the Boy Scouts.

To protest Hasbrouck Heights High School 's ban on shorts, senior Michael Coviello wore a skirt to school and was sent home.  The school agreed to allow him to wear skirts to protest the dress code after the ACLU intervened.