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Supreme Court Watch

May 24, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: Phil Ponce has the Supreme Court decisions.

PHIL PONCE: They dealt with two of the term’s most important issues: Whether a school district can be held responsible when one student sexually harasses another student, and whether police can be sued for letting reporters go with them on raids. Here to explain these decisions is NewsHour regular Jan Crawford Greenburg, national legal affairs correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. Jan, let’s start with the student’s sexual harassment case. What is it the Supreme Court ruled?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, the court said today that school districts can be held liable for a student’s sexual harassment of another student. When that harassment is so severe, so pervasive, so offensive that it harms the student’s ability to get an education. And the school district knew about the harassment and did nothing to stop it. That they were deliberately indifferent to the harassment.

PHIL PONCE: Tell us a little bit about the facts of this case. Evidently, it met those requirements, the facts, that is.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Certainly, the girl involved would argue that it did. It involved a young girl from a Georgia elementary school who said that she was harassed over a five-month period by one of her classmates in the fifth grade. And she alleges that the behavior was very extreme, that the boy made repeated sexual comments to her, said he wanted to go to bed with her, touched her inappropriately.

PHIL PONCE: We’re talking about two ten-year-olds here, yes, at the time?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Fifth grade, yes, that’s right. But she said she complained to her teachers. And they did nothing. The school did absolutely nothing. So frustrated by this inaction, her mother sued on her behalf to try to get the school to listen to her complaints. Now, two lower courts threw out her lawsuit saying that she didn’t have a claim under the federal law, and that is what the court took up today.

PHIL PONCE: And what was the federal law that was in question?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: At issue was a law called Title 9 of the 1972 Education amendments. It’s a federal education spending law. And it prohibits discrimination in public education.

PHIL PONCE: Sexual discrimination; for example, it’s been held that university that receive federal money, they have to have parity in their athletic programs and that sort of thing between the sexes.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Right. Any institution that receives federal funding, because they receive the funds has to agree that they will not discriminate.

PHIL PONCE: And a quick point of information, did the school district concede that the facts– I mean, were the facts contested? Did the school district agree yes that, happened, we didn’t do anything, et cetera?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: No. The facts at this point are still in dispute. And for the purposes of today’s case the court is simply assuming that the facts are true. It will now go back and they’ll have to resolve if, in fact, they are true.

PHIL PONCE: So now, what does this case mean, what impact will it have on how school districts conduct their business?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, the Justice Department at oral arguments said this standard that the court adopted today was a very tough one. And that it would not have a significant impact. But there was a very scathing dissent in the case written by Justice Anthony Kennedy. And Kennedy said that the ruling would be quite extreme on school districts, that it would lead them or subject them to potential crushing financial devastation.

PHIL PONCE: Why is that?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Because of the countless number of suits that Justice Kennedy anticipates, it opens school districts, he says, to litigation by any number of the nation’s 45 million schoolchildren. Simply, he says, if they can show they were subject to some teasing, a teacher didn’t do anything about it, and maybe their grades went down as a result.

PHIL PONCE: The majority obviously wasn’t talking about normal teasing. They were talking about the kind of aggravated sexual harassment between one student and another. But how does the court say one tells the difference?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, Justice O’Connor — who wrote the majority opinion-and the split was interesting because Justice O’Connor and Justice Kennedy normally or often vote together. But this should apply — school districts should be liable only in certain limited circumstances. She said these circumstances go beyond the simple act of teasing and name-calling and that they must show that the sexual harassment had an impact on the student’s ability to get an education and that the school district was deliberately indifferent to it. She said that’s a very difficult standard. And this is a narrow decision that will limit many of these instances and won’t let them be open to liability.

PHIL PONCE: Jan, was there anything in the record as to the prevalence of this kind of harassment, how common it is in the nation’s schools?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Lawyers for school boards say that these sorts of lawsuits have been on the rise ever since 1992 when the court said that this law could provide a means for people to sue and recover financial damages.

PHIL PONCE: Let’s move along to the second case. It’s the media ride-along case as it’s being called. What is a media ride-along anyway, to begin with?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, it’s a very common practice when reporters and photographers, sometimes camera crews accompany police officers as they go about their business, as they are driving in their squad cars, patrolling city streets, sometimes making arrests in public places and sometimes at least in the past, going into people’s homes.

PHIL PONCE: And there are now some television– these reality-based cop shows where a camera crew follows a police team and chronicles their day and night. This is the kind of thing that people are seeing more and more on television, yes?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Right. And those shows are very popular. The show “Cops” for example, has been on the air now for eight or nine years and has spawned countless imitators.

PHIL PONCE: So the issue today was?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: The issue today was whether or not it is so intrusive when the media goes along with the police, that that is such an intrusion on people’s right to privacy, that it would actually violate the fourth amendment of the Constitution which, as you know, protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures.

PHIL PONCE: And the court held?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Today the court said and Justice Rehnquist, who wrote the opinion, said it was a narrow ruling. The court said that it would violate the fourth amendment if the media accompanied police officers into a person’s home.

PHIL PONCE: So this specifically deals with going into where somebody lives as opposed to following– tagging along, a reporter tagging along with the police officer on a street or on the beat.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Patrolling the beat. That’s right.

PHIL PONCE: A unanimous decision.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That was unanimous, that police officers can’t allow the press to go inside a person’s home.

PHIL PONCE: Real quickly, what were the facts in– there were two cases, one out of Maryland and one out of the Montana. The Maryland case, what was that one about?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: The Maryland case involved a couple who was roused out of their bed early in the morning by police searching for their adult son; they wanted to arrest him. The son wasn’t in the home. Unbeknownst to the couple, a photographer and reporter for the Washington Post were — they had accompanied police. The other case came from Montana, involved a couple whose ranch was searched by federal agents investigating whether they had violated some wildlife laws. CNN had accompanied the Fish & Wildlife agents. And that couple argued, as did the Maryland couple, that those media ride-alongs violated their rights because the sanctity of their home was such that they should not be subject to -

PHIL PONCE: The facts in the Maryland case were somewhat dramatic. As I recall in reading the record, it was the middle of the night. The police came in with the photographer, the gentleman in the house was in his underwear. They put a gun to his head.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Right. It was quite an extreme invasion. It was very, very early in the morning. The woman had on her night clothes as well. All the while, the search was going on, a photographer was snapping pictures. Those photographs were not published. Nonetheless, the couple argued that the virtue that they were inside their home violated their fourth amendment rights.

PHIL PONCE: And the news organization, did they make any kind of first amendment right that the court addressed?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: The case today involved, of course, the police who were defending this practice, but, yes, the excuse me, the news organizations sided with the police. And they argued this was a very important public service, the police and the press said that it was educational for the public to see what it is that police, you know, officers do on a daily basis.

PHIL PONCE: The court didn’t buy it though, huh?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, not in this situation. Now, the court, like I said, it was a narrow ruling. It doesn’t mean that “Cops” is going to go off the air. Reporters can still trail police officers on the beat.

PHIL PONCE: Just so long as they don’t go into people’s homes.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Right. Unless the people say “Sure. Come on in.”

PHIL PONCE: Jan, thank you very much.