The case was decided 6 to 3. Justice White delivered the opinion of the Court.
In determining whether the search at issue in this case violated
the Fourth Amendment, we are faced initially with the question whether
that Amendment's prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures
applies to searches conducted by public school officials. We hold that
. . . We have held school officials subject to the commands of the
First Amendment . . . Today's public school officials do not merely
exercise authority voluntarily conferred on them by individual parents;
rather, they act in furtherance of publicly mandated educational and
disciplinary policies . . . In carrying out searches and other
disciplinary functions pursuant to such policies, school officials act
as representatives of the State, not merely as surrogates for the
parents, and they cannot claim the parents' immunity from the strictures
of the Fourth Amendment.
. . . Although this Court may take notice of the difficulty of
maintaining discipline in the public schools today, the situation is not
so dire that students in the schools may claim no legitimate
expectations of privacy . . .
Nor does the State's suggestion that children have no legitimate need
to bring personal property into the schools seem well anchored in
reality. Students at a minimum must bring to school not only the
supplies needed for their studies, but also keys, money, and the
necessaries of personal hygiene and grooming . . . [S]choolchildren may
find it necessary to carry with them a variety of legitimate,
noncontraband items, and there is no reason to conclude that they have
necessarily waived all rights to privacy in such items merely by
bringing them onto school grounds.
Against the child's interest in privacy must be set the substantial
interest of teachers and administrators in maintaining discipline in the
classroom and on school grounds. Maintaining order in the classroom has
never been easy, but in recent years, school disorder has often taken
particularly ugly forms: drug use and violent crime in the schools have
become major social problems . . . [W]e have recognized that maintaining
security and order in the schools requires a certain degree of
flexibility in school disciplinary procedures, and we have respected the
value of preserving the informality of the student-teacher
. . . The warrant requirement, in particular, is unsuited to the
school environment: requiring a teacher to obtain a warrant before
searching a child suspected of an infraction of school rules (or of the
criminal law) would unduly interfere with the maintenance of the swift
and informal disciplinary procedures needed in the schools . . . [W]e
hold today that school officials need not obtain a warrant before
searching a student who is under their authority.
The school setting also requires some modification of the level of
suspicion of illicit activity needed to justify a search. Ordinarily, a
search—even one that may permissibly be carried out without a
warrant—must be based upon "probable cause" to believe that a violation
of the law has occurred . . . However, "probable cause" is not an
irreducible requirement of a valid search. The fundamental command of
the Fourth Amendment is that searches and seizures be reasonable, and
although "both the concept of probable cause and the requirement of a
warrant bear on the reasonableness of a search, . . . in certain limited
circumstances neither is required."
. . . [T]he legality of a search of a student should depend simply on
the reasonableness, under all the circumstances, of the search . . .
Under ordinary circumstances, a search of a student by a teacher or
other school official will be "justified at its inception" 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. Such 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.
. . . Because the search resulting in the discovery of the evidence
of marijuana dealing by T.L.O. was reasonable, the New Jersey Supreme
Court's decision to exclude that evidence from T.L.O.'s juvenile
delinquency proceedings on Fourth Amendment grounds was erroneous.
Accordingly, the judgment of the Supreme Court of New Jersey is
Questions to Consider
Why does the Court say the Fourth Amendment applies to students in schools?
What does the Court say is balanced against the privacy rights of students?
Why does the Court say the requirement of a warrant is "unsuited to the school environment"?
Describe the standard the Court uses to determine whether a school search is legal or not.
Do you think the "reasonableness" standard is adequate to
protect the rights of students against invasions of privacy or other
abuses? Give your reasons.