by Sam Levin
Do colleges have a right to mandate all students pass drug tests? The American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri has argued that it's an unconstitutional practice -- and it seems a federal judge agrees in the case of one local college.
The ACLU filed a lawsuit in 2011 against Linn State Technical College after the school mandated that all incoming students submit to a new mandatory drug-testing policy. And on Friday, a judge issued an official order, on view below, blocking the college's controversial requirement.
"Today's decision affirms the privacy and personal dignity of hundreds of students who were forced to supply their college with urine samples before they could take any classes," Tony Rothert, legal director of ACLU-EM says in a statement.
Will the college continue the fight?
Donald Claycomb, president of Linn State, tells Daily RFT via a spokesman that as of late Friday afternoon, the college has not had an opportunity to consult with its attorneys and was not ready to comment.
But previous court documents and reports show that the college is interested in maintaining some sort of drug screening program, in part because of the technical focus of Linn State, which says industry leaders support this kind of testing. The college is Missouri's only public two-year technical college with a statewide mission and has locations in Linn, Mexico and Jefferson City.
Back in 2011, around 500 students were tested, prompting the ACLU to launch a federal lawsuit arguing that this blanket drug screening without reasonable suspicion was illegal.
"Without a compelling need, a search of your bodily fluids is exactly the type of unreasonable search and seizure that the Constitution prevents the government from imposing," Rothert says.
The latest development in this legal battle is a decision from U.S. District Judge Nanette Laughrey dictating that most of those students cannot have the results of the 2011 drug tests reported to the school. The decision makes an exception for students enrolled in the aviation maintenance, heavy-equipment operations and industrial-electricity programs -- but those who are a part of the roughly 30 other programs, cannot be drug tested at this time.
Continue for more details on the decision and Linn State's defense.
Laughrey writes that there needs to be significant safety concerns specific to the school's programs that would justify the college overriding basic Fourth Amendment rights. Referencing the school's design drafting technology program, for example, the decision says:
To the extent that this program involves any safety risks at all, they appear limited to the possibility that a student might accidentally hurt herself, such as by stumbling or falling while navigating uneven ground during a site visit. But the special need identified by the Court of Appeals was concern over drug use by students "in programs posing significant safety risks to others."
Linn State, Laughrey says, has not shown that there is a "special need" in many of its programs that would justify an exception to the general rule prohibiting suspicionless searches and seizures and for that reason, rules the testing to be unreasonable.
This latest decision functions as a preliminary injunction with a trial for a permanent injunction set for July.
In response to the ACLU's original challenge, Linn State set up a legal-defense fund to support its fight in court. At that time, the president argued, the "drug screening was implemented in the spirit of what is best for our students," adding, "it is based on our mission and the environment students are in from the standpoint of safety and preparation for employment."
And the school's attorney argued that the drug-screening program is part of an effort to explore "every available avenue to protect and prepare those students to compete effectively in occupations where pre-employment drug testing is quickly becoming the norm."
Here's last week's decision.
And the original lawsuit.
And an earlier press release from Linn State, defending its program.
Linn State launches legal defense fund
Linn State Technical College announced Thursday that it has set up a legal fund to help defend itself against the American Civil Liberties Union.
On September 14, 2011, the ACLU filed a federal class action lawsuit charging Linn State with violating the constitutional rights of its students by forcing them to submit to mandatory drug screening.
"The drug screening was implemented in the spirit of what is best for our students," said Dr. Donald Claycomb, president of Linn State. "It is based on our mission and the environment students are in from the standpoint of safety and preparation for employment."
Based on feedback from a survey of 333 of the college's advisory council members, Linn State began researching and eventually implementing a drug screening program. In December 2008, 49 percent or 163 advisory council members returned the survey and of those, 83 percent or 135 indicated their support of a drug screening program at the college.
Since the filing of ACLU's suit, Linn State continues to receive overwhelming support from business and industry for the drug screening program.
"We appreciate the number of people wanting to support us," says Claycomb. "Our industry advisors have guided us and supported us through this process and recognize that we're a small institution that's been brought into an expensive legal battle."
Since the infancy of the program, Linn State has worked closely with legal counsel to design and administer a responsible drug screening program that protects both students and their rights.
"Linn State Technical College takes seriously its responsibility to deliver quality technical education to students while exploring every available avenue to protect and prepare those students to compete effectively in occupations where pre-employment drug testing is quickly becoming the norm," said Kent Brown, legal counsel for Linn State.
"In the designing of the program, the college made every effort to protect the rights of students by providing for numerous levels of due process and allowing students who objected to the program to request to be excused from testing," said Brown.
According to Brown a legal defense would not have been necessary had the ACLU responded to the College's attempts to involve them in the design and administration of a responsible drug screening program that would protect both students and their rights.
As the college prepares its legal defense, Linn State supporters recognize the college's need for funds to cover the cost of legal fees. "With a number of our stakeholders wanting to provide their help and assistance, we felt it would be in our best interest to provide a vehicle separate from current financial arrangements by which our supporters could help us financially with our legal defense," said Claycomb.