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Court Invalidates Public College’s Blanket Drug Testing Policy

A federal judge held unconstitutional a Missouri college’s policy of drug testing every single incoming student Friday, holding that generalized hypothetical concerns about drug use and safety could not justify widespread suspicionless testing.

Drug testing has long been considered a “search” under the Fourth Amendment, meaning it must be justified by unique concerns, one of which is public safety. Linn State, a two-year technical college, instituted a drug testing policy for all incoming or returning students — accompanied by a $50 fee and threatened dismissal — based in part on the rationale that some of them participated in vocational programs in which drug use could pose a safety risk to themselves and others.

But as the court points out, such generalized concerns are not justification for instituting wholesale searches. U.S. District Judge Nanette K. Laughrey expressed skepticism in her ruling that “illusory safety concerns” are masking unconstitutional purposes “apparent in this case,” such as appeasing parental desire for a drug-free campus, and preparing students for future professions in which they may be tested for drugs. They found that drug testing was not justified by actual safety concerns in almost any of the school’s training programs, with the exception of a few programs like aviation maintenance and heavy machinery operation. In fact, none of the six plaintiffs who sued with the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union operate heavy machinery as part of their academic program — instead, they work on programs like Electronics Engineering Technology and Design Drafting Technology that involve sitting at a drafting table or in front of a computer.

For other students, she held, speculative concern about possible safety risks does not justify the personal invasion of a drug test:

Pure speculation about a single, hypothetical sequence of events cannot suffice to justify suspicionless drug testing. In even the safest circumstances, it is possible to surmise some series of events that could, theoretically, result in injury to others. But if boundless speculation could provide the requisite special need for drug testing, it would render meaningless the Supreme Court’s instruction that the asserted safety interest must be “substantial and real” in order for suspicionless drug testing to fall within the “closely guarded category” of constitutional, suspicionless searches.

When the ACLU first filed the lawsuit on behalf of six students in 2011, it said Linn State was dubbed the first in the country to require all of its students over the age of 18 to submit to drug tests. Other colleges have more limited drug testing policies of athletes or other populations, which have also been called into question, but the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld drug testing of high school athletes. The court temporarily blocked the testing in March, and made it permanent with Friday’s order.

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Drug testing has become more prevalent, concurrent with the rise of a profitable drug testing industry driven by pharmaceutical companies. But blanket government drug testing programs not linked to public safety or suspicion have been consistently struck down, including testing of welfare applicants, federal employees, and state employees.