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Is Your College Forcing Every Student to Urinate into a Cup?

Jason D. Williamson,
Deputy Director,
ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project
Sarah Solon,
Communications Strategist,
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September 19, 2013

Imagine you get into the college of your dreams. You save up for the books you need and some coveted dorm decorations. The welcome wagon that greets you on campus? A suspicionless drug test and a $50 fee for the hassle and embarrassment of urinating into a cup. If you refuse to comply, you will not be allowed to start classes.

I’m not making this scenario up. Starting in 2011, Linn State Technical College in Missouri became the first public, non-military college in the country to subject each and every incoming student to mandatory drug testing. Not any more, thanks to a solid ruling last week from U.S. District Judge Nanette K. Laughrey, who found the practice unconstitutional as applied to most students.

To many of us, the idea of forcing every incoming freshman to submit to a drug test – regardless of whether the student is studying in a safety-sensitive field and regardless of whether the student has any history with drug abuse – seems ludicrous. But, sadly, the faulty assumption that forcing everyone to pee in a cup is an effective way of identifying and deterring illegal drug use is common rhetoric for those committed to fighting the failed War on Drugs.

That is why last week’s victory is so important. Not only will Linn State have to stop this practice, but all other schools considering equally invasive and unconstitutional policies are officially on notice. Students do not have to sacrifice their Fourth Amendment privacy protections in order to pursue their education. Mandatory, suspicionless drug testing of the entire student body has no place in education.

To students who fear that their school may adopt mandatory drug tests, here are the helpful parts of this decision you can use to argue for your rights:

  • Safety concerns do not justify subjecting the entire study body to mandatory drug tests. Often, government officials try to use generic concerns about “safety” as a justification for implementing overly broad drug testing policies. But it’s important to remember the law: mandatory drug tests can only be justified in situations that present concrete and unique safety risks to others. Mere speculation about what could happen just won’t cut it. This high threshold of dangerousness is the reason that courts have held time and again that the government cannot subject everyone applying for a drivers’ license to a drug test – even though we know driving a car can be dangerous in certain situations, there simply is no safety threat large enough to justify the intrusive, suspicionless testing of each and every driver. Judge Laughrey made a similar observation in this case. It’s true that some of the students at Linn State operate heavy machinery or participate in other activities that could pose a danger to others; for those students, she argued that there is some legal ground for drug tests. But for the majority of students who were subjected to mandatory drug tests in September 2011, the Court rightly ordered that Linn State refund their $50 and destroy their urine samples.
  • Your Fourth Amendment rights do not disappear when you walk onto campus. The Fourth Amendment protects us all from unreasonable searches and seizures – and a urine test has long been found to count as a search under the Constitution. Just like all other adults, college students have a reasonable expectation that their urine is private, and the government (or administrators at a public university) cannot search it without making a very persuasive showing that their search is justified. According to Judge Laughrey, Linn State failed to offer an adequate justification for collecting and testing every student’s urine. Citing to another case knocking down mandatory drug tests for TANF recipients, Judge Laughrey found that Linn State’s urine tests were not justified searches because, among other reasons, the College was unable to provide evidence of a particular threat of drug use among its students. In fact, the evidence showed that, in its 50-year history, Linn State has never had a significant accident on campus—let alone one involving drug use by a student. Instead, the College just cited statistics about drug use in the population as a whole, and that’s not specific enough.

When the ACLU and the ACLU of Eastern Missouri brought this case in 2011, we hoped for this verdict. It’s great to see another overly broad, suspicionless, and unconstitutional drug testing policy struck down.

For more about this case, please click here.

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