Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

The troubling spectrum of student privacy rights

January 26, 2011 by Rogers Smith


The Constitution applies to everyone. It guarantees equal protection to all persons. And the Supreme Court treats issues of students' constitutional privacy rights as the same throughout the land. But in practice, both the scope and substance of student privacy rights vary greatly--in ways that, like so much else in the U.S., are bound up with class and race inequalities.

My son attends Harriton High School in Lower Merion Township, just outside of Philadelphia. Last year the school was embroiled in a well-publicized controversy because all students had been given laptops that, it turned out, the school district could and sometimes did activate to take pictures of students in their homes.

When we found this out, we started waving to our son's laptop during meals. The school has dropped this practice, an unconstitutional invasion of privacy--but one that's an issue only in school districts that can afford to give every student a laptop.

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On Constitution Day earlier this year, I spoke to classes at the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, located in a historic and beautiful building on Broad Street in Center City. But to enter that building, I along with everyone else had to go through a metal detector and have my bag X-rayed.

This is NOT an invasion of constitutional privacy rights. But they don't do it at affluent, suburban Harriton High. They do it for even rather elite, "by application only" public schools in Philadelphia, like the High School for the Arts, because Philadelphia is a high-crime city. It is also, not coincidentally, a city with high poverty rates, especially in largely non-white neighborhoods.

Harriton and the High School for the Arts, which are not geographically very distant, peg down two ends of a troubling spectrum of privacy rights. That reality was underlined recently when a student in a Los Angeles high school had a gun in his backpack that accidentally went off, injuring two other students. His school does only random metal detector checks--as opposed to the "never" at Harriton and the "always" at the High School for the Arts--and he wasn't checked. I don't know his high school's demographics, but I'll bet they, too, are in the middle of the spectrum in terms of class, race, and ethnicity.

We tend to give poor, non-white, urban students the least privacy rights.

Everyone recognizes that there are tough questions about how far students should be recognized as having privacy rights. But we often fail to pay attention to the reality that in practice, we tend to give poor, non-white, urban students the least privacy rights.

There are good reasons for doing so, but these practices compound American inequalities in polarizing ways--so these privacy inequalities raise tough questions that we need to address as well.

Rogers Smith is a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and the National Constitution Center scholar in our Student Exchange program on Jan. 26.Photo credit: Flickr user jermainejustice.

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