Are Students (and Minors) Protected by the Constitution?
Why can schools impose dress codes and search students’ backpacks? Doesn’t the Bill of Rights protect minors from such intrusions?
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Today’s topic: The rights of minors
And now, your daily dose of legalese: This article does not create an attorney-client relationship with any reader. In other words, although I am a lawyer, I’m not your lawyer. In fact, we barely know each other. If you need personalized legal advice, contact an attorney in your community.
Are Minors Protected by the Constitution?
Not long ago, I got an email from Michael, who just turned 13, asking me about his rights as a minor. Specifically, he asks: “is it a breach of the First Amendment for a school, private or otherwise, to require its students to wear a uniform or follow a dress code? Also, do I have full protection via the Bill of Rights as a minor?”
These are great questions, Michael. As I’ll explain in a minute, the Bill of Rights--including the First Amendment--does apply to minors. However, as is so often the case, the student version of the Bill of Rights is somewhat different from the teacher’s edition. Or the parent’s edition, for that matter.
The Constitution Applies to Everyone--Sort Of
Generally speaking, the Constitution applies to everyone regardless of age, color, race, religion, or other factors. But minors don’t always enjoy full constitutional rights. The Fifth Amendment, for example, guarantees “liberty,” which means that the State can’t hold you against your will, unless you’ve done something wrong. But in the case of minors, the State requires them to spend all day in an institution, often against their will--it’s called school, and kids have to go there even if they haven’t done anything wrong.
The Bill of Rights Applies to Public Schools
Did you notice that I referred to “the State” in the example I just gave? Remember that the Bill of Rights, i.e., the first ten amendments to the Constitution, protects the People from certain actions by the federal or state government. That answers part of Michael’s question: a private school cannot violate the First Amendment because it is not a “state actor,” to use the legal term.
For the same reason, you can’t sue your parents for violating your constitutional rights--even if they take away your Guitar Hero. In this article, when I talk about the rights of students, I’m basically referring to the rights of students in public schools.