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Civil Liberties, ’80s Style

Julia C. Lipman

What can’t schools get away with in the name of protecting children?

Well, not prohibiting black armbands, at least after the famous Tinker case involving students protesting the Vietnam War. And not requiring school prayer, at least not yet. But a few new cases involving student civil liberties show not only that schools have become more restrictive in the wake of Columbine, but also that students have become savvier about their rights, starting a national debate about civil liberties the likes of which haven’t been seen for ten years.

In possibly the most important of these cases, a high school in Oklahoma instituted a policy under which students taking part in some extracurricular activities would be required to undergo drug tests. Some of these activities, like choir and the academic team, had for-credit classroom components for which attendance in the extracurricular part was necessary. So the school’s policy, in effect, made drug testing a prerequisite for certain academic classes.

Two juniors at the school, Lindsay Earls and Daniel James, decided to challenge this policy, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union. Their suit alleges that there was no specific reason for the new policy; it wasn’t sparked by an outbreak of student drug use, nor by academic team members who suddenly started to mix up Charlemagne and Charlie Chaplin. Instead, it seemed to be a concession to post-Columbine uneasiness, a feeling that something, anything, must be done to stop the rising tide of school violence (which, statistically, is not actually rising at all). The ACLU also raised the issue of test reliability; James believed that a false positive could damage his reputation and employment prospects. Even though other drug testing policies for student in extracurricular activities have been upheld by courts, none of them involved academic classes.

So, have conservatives, who seem lately to have taken up the cause of civil libertarianism, raised a hue and cry about this latest violation of student liberties by Big Government? Well, not exactly. They were more than happy to take up the case of Johnathan Prevette, the six-year-old punished for kissing a classmate, twisting the minor incident to fit their idea of sexual harassment policy out of control. Some conservatives even blamed Clintonian Big Brother-ism in the case of a school that disciplined a student for possessing over the counter medicine. But on the issue of illegal drugs, they’re a little uneasy.

And who could blame them? With George W. Bush’s “young and irresponsible” behavior coming under increasingly harsh scrutiny, drug policy is something they’d really rather not discuss. The debate over Bush’s actions as a college student, which seemed to have begun as a test to see whether Bush would really respond to these kinds of questions with more integrity than we’ve come to expect from Clinton, has taken on a life of its own as observers take a closer look at the governor’s harsh drug policies, which are responsible for cuts in drug treatment programs as well as more punitive sentences for nonviolent drug crimes. Clintonian Democrats, who called for school uniforms as a way of preventing violence and who co-opted Republican drug policies, are also in no position to support the rights of these students.

This case, as well as a few other moderately publicized controversies over student rights, illustrates that conservatives aren’t going to be the leaders for the next civil liberties fights. They’ve been at the barricades for conservative college students censured by their administrations, or just ostracized by fellow students, but they’re not going to go anywhere near two high school juniors who don’t want to take a drug test, or a Virginia high school student suspended for having blue hair, or Ohio students suspended for involvement with a gothic web site.

Some religious conservatives voiced opposition to a Mississippi school’s (later reversed) decision to ban the Jewish star as a gang symbol, but the anti-PC movement has died down, and with it, the idea that conservatives are the true defenders of civil liberties against an intrusive government. Conservatives are going back to the tactics of a decade ago, and renewing debates that were widely believed to be over. In fact, archconservative Boston College professor David Lowenthal advocated a return to outright government censorship of the media in a recent Weekly Standard article that has people on all sides of the political spectrum talking. The Kansas state board of education’s decision to omit evolution from the state curriculum has sparked a national controversy on what seemed like an extinct issue. And even the flag-burning amendment movement, which seemed laughably irrelevant just a few years ago, has begun to pick up steam.

We’re headed back to the ’80s, as far as civil liberties are concerned. Forget about debates over the insidious liberal menace of “political correctness” and Clinton as Big Brother; get ready for the ACLU vs. the Moral Majority, Round Two. The conservatives are abandoning their posts at the free-speech barricades, where they were never really that comfortable anyway; Dan Quayle and even Bush, to some degree, are presenting themselves as the heirs to Ronald Reagan. It’s morning in America again.