Wednesday, February 24, 2010


by Michael McGough | LA Times Opinion LA Blog

February 23, 2010 |  6:59 am -- One of the most famous -- and most controversial -- lines in a U.S. Supreme Court opinion comes from a 1969 case in which the justices upheld the right of  students to express political opinions at a public school. The money quote from the decision, which involved kids who wore black armbands to protest the Vietnam War, goes like this: "It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."

The notion that schoolchildren have constitutional rights doesn't sit well with everyone. In a 2007 case, Justice Clarence Thomas suggested that society should return to the practice in Colonial days when  public schools "were not places for freewheeling debates or exploration of competing ideas." But even Thomas might have trouble with the alleged practice of a Pennsylvania public school of using webcams on laptop computers to spy on students in their homes.

The family of 15-year-old sophomore Blake Robbins has filed a lawsuit against the Lower Merion School District. The Robbinses claim that a school employee accused Blake of "improper behavior in his home," based on a photo from the laptop issued by the school. The school replies that  the cameras are used only to locate lost or stolen laptops. Time, and perhaps a judge, will decide who's telling the truth, but the Robbinses' allegation makes for (as journalists like to say) a chilling scenario.

Whether or not a student's constitutional rights stop at the schoolhouse gate, they certainly don't stop at his own front door.

  • McGough is a member of the LA Times Editorial Board.

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