It's tough being a kid. You're living at home under your parents' thumb. You have no money, no education -- no real autonomy at all. You can't even see certain movies without an adult with you. So, when it comes to the law, what rights does the average child or teenager have? If you think the answer's "none," prepare to think again.
Under the law, children in the United States are fully formed human beings with the same basic constitutional rights that adults enjoy. Like every other citizen, children have the right to due process under the law and the right to counsel. They're also protected against cruel and unusual punishment and unreasonable searches and seizures. However, the law also recognizes that children aren't physically and emotionally mature enough to handle the responsibility attached to legal activities like drinking, let alone the right to vote or run for public office. The law reconciles these two ideas by implementing ages of majority designed to define when a person has the ability to exercise his or her rights responsibly. These usually vary by state, but they govern everything from the right to drive to the right to marry.
There are some exceptions, however. In the juvenile justice system, for example, children don't receive bail, nor are they tried by juries of their peers. Juveniles do have the right to seek legal counsel if there's a chance that they could be tried as adults, as well as the right to a hearing before a judge. Children can also petition for legal emancipation from their parents, but they would face an uphill battle there: The Liberty Clause of the 14th Amendment gives parents the right to raise their own children, as long as there is no abuse or neglect.
There's one other exception that children and teens are much likelier to encounter. Learn all about it on the next page.
Although children and teens enjoy the same rights as their elders, the Supreme Court has repeatedly limited student rights to free speech and expression in school. The Court has also upheld censorship of school newspapers and suspensions of students for inappropriate language and behavior. Schools have even been allowed to search students' private property without probable cause [source: FindLaw]. In that particular case, New Jersey v. T.L.O., the Court found that a school's responsibility to educate and protect children trumps student privacy, and allows school authorities more leeway than the police would have outside school [source: Dorf]. The court ruled on that case in 1985, but student rights have been further restricted since then.
More recently, the High Court has allowed school officials to punish students for behavior outside school grounds [source: Supreme Court of the United States]. In November 2010, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli even issued an official opinion advocating the search of students' personal cell phones and laptops if there's "a reasonable suspicion that the student is violating the law or the rules of the school" [source: McNeill].
Children and adults share many of the same rights under the law, but the exceptions to the rule make it clear that most children lack the maturity to truly understand what having those rights actually entails. What does it really mean to be able to vote, marry or have due process in a court of law? Does that understanding depend solely on one's birthday? Should it?
For more information on children and the Supreme Court, see the links on the next page.
- Dorf, Michael C. "What Constitutional Rights Should Schoolchildren Have? Two Recent Cases Underscore the Ways in Which Children Are Not Simply Miniature Adults." FindLaw. March 23, 2009. (Dec. 7, 2010)
- FindLaw. "New Jersey v. T.L.O." Jan. 15, 1985. (Dec. 13, 2010)
- McNeill, Brian. "Cuccinelli OK with searches of student phones, laptops." Media General News Service. Nov. 26, 2010. (Dec. 9, 2010)http://www2.timesdispatch.com/news/virginia-politics/2010/nov/26/cucc26-ar-677140/
- Supreme Court of the United States. "Safford United School District #1, et al. v. Redding." June 25, 2009. Legal Information Institute, Cornell University Law School. (Dec. 7, 2010)http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/08-479.ZO.html
- Supreme Court of the United States. "Deborah Morse, et al. v. Joseph Frederick." June 25, 2007. (Dec. 10, 2010)http://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=10117776825257150184&hl=en&as_sdt=80002&as_vis=1