“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” Amendment IV, US Constitution
The protection against “unreasonable searches and seizures” is fundamental to a free society and a stalwart defense against the advancements of tyrants. The Framers of our Bill of Rights understood this well. Under British rule they had become all too familiar with infringements on individual security in person and possession and sought to remedy such occurrences in the new United States.
No doubt burning in the minds of our Framers were a number of domestic and English cases like Entick v. Carrington (1765) and Wilkes v Wood (1763) in Britain and the famous revolutionary James Otis’s cases defending colonial smugglers against the King’s "writs of assistance" here at home. John Adams, later reflecting on Otis’ battles would claim, “Then and there was the child ‘Independence’ born.” Moreover, the details of Entick and Wilkes reveal much about the reasoning behind the Fourth Amendment. In each of the cases, pamphleteers who were critics of the government were arrested and all their books and papers were seized for no better reason that their unhappiness with the Crown. (In the case of Wilkes forty-nine of his friends also had their papers seized.) Of course, the Founders’ exposure to search and seizure abuses was not confined to these few cases. On a daily basis, during the Revolutionary Period, there were search and seizure abuses by the Crown…abuses designed to reinforce statist rule…abuses that would warrant the protections of the Fourth Amendment.
In a society lacking the protection we are granted in the Fourth Amendment, government intrusion and intimidation can more easily occur. The individual is burdened by unjust infringements on his rights to property and privacy, and the state can easily use force to crack down on dissonance. In order to protect against these abuses and foster an environment for a free people, the Framers thankfully included protections against “unreasonable searches and seizures” in our Bill of Rights.
Since the adoption of the Fourth Amendment, it has been one of the most prolific sources of constitutional litigation in our nation. At times the Court has firmly ruled on the side of individual rights. At other times, the Court has ruled the other way. Today we lovers of liberty and lovers of the Constitution have reason to celebrate.
As Cato reports:
"The Supreme Court’s decision today in Safford Unified School District #1 et al. v. Redding was a victory for privacy and decency. The Court held that a middle school violated the Fourth Amendment rights of a thirteen-year-old girl by strip searching her in a failed effort to find Ibuprofen pills and an over-the-counter painkiller…
…The Fourth Amendment exists to preserve a balance between the individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy and the state’s need for order and security. Unnecessarily traumatizing students with invasive and humiliating breaches of personal privacy upsets this balance. Today’s decision restores reasonable limits to student searches and provides valuable guidance to school officials."
Every Constitutionalist should praise the Court’s decision for two reasons.
First, it rightfully recognizes the protection we are promised under the Fourth Amendment. Though this was an issue involving school officials searching a young girl for medication, there is a broader importance contained in the ruling. Today the issue was of what some may consider minor importance, but tomorrow it could involve protecting political advisories and others against the government. If our freedoms are lost in one facet of the law, loses elsewhere will be soon to follow. Moreover, this decision reminds us of the preciousness of our privacy rights and how often they are under attack.
Secondly, this decision by the court affirms the protection—as it is stated in the text—belongs to “people,” not merely adults. I once had a teacher to refute this claim. She was an open liberal, not a Con Law professor, and frankly on the wrong side of most constitutional arguments. One day as we were having a class discussion, the topic of students’ rights came up. I quickly pointed to the aforementioned constitutional protection, when she informed me that students do not have constitutional rights, claiming that the Court had a number of times denied students certain constitutional protections thus making it so. I, admittedly a little angered, began to tell her how the Court cannot and does not affect the truth behind the document and how rights exist whether they are recognized or not. Therefore, because of the willingness of those in society to protect the rights of some and not others, the fact that the Court (save for J. Thomas) stood up for the rights of an often overlooked segment of society gives us a reason to be thankful.
What we should take from both the Court’s recent ruling and from what we know about the Fourth Amendment is this. We need to be protected against “unreasonable searches and seizures” in order to limit the governing bodies, from principals to principalities, from infringing on our rights and freedoms. Moreover, in order for us to freely express our views and truly live lives of liberty, the Fourth Amendment must be protected. If a student cannot be protected from an unreasonable search by school officials, we can have no hope in being protected from a tyrannical government trying to silence voices of opposition.
For now, it seems that that the Court is willing to stand up for our rights, but let us not fall into complacency. Let us remain vigilant, and let us continue to demand protection from “unreasonable searches and seizures.” It could be the difference in our being a free society or a police state.
*Some historical information in this post came from The Heritage Guide to the Constitution 2005.