Baker v. Owen


Who has more authority in deciding how a child will be disciplined at school, especially when a parent’s belief in how his or her child is to be disciplined is at odds with a school’s disciplinary practices? What are some guidelines a school must adhere to in order to ensure that students are afforded minimal procedural due process in corporal punishment cases? Does corporal punishment constitute cruel and unusual punishment?
In Baker v. Owen (1975), the U.S. Supreme Court, in its first case addressing corporal punishment, summarily affirmed a ruling of a three-judge panel in a federal trial court in North Carolina that while parents generally have the right to choose among disciplinary practices for children, the essential responsibility of school officials to maintain discipline is a more compelling interest. Accordingly, the trial court decided that parents do not have the authority to restrict the discretion of school officials who seek to use corporal punishment on students who break school rules. Even given such discretion, corporal punishment disciplinary proceedings must be in accordance with minimum procedural due process protections, the Court said.

Facts of the Case


The mother of sixth grader Russell Baker instructed school officials not to corporally punish her son, because she opposed the practice on principle. After the student violated a school rule, officials administered corporal punishment and did not provide him with procedural due process. The mother then sued school officials, claiming that they violated her right to choose disciplinary methods under the Fourteenth Amendment and that the use of corporal punishment violated the Eight Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
Baker is perhaps best known as providing guidance on what happens when two protected rights are at odds with each other: In this case, the right of parents to direct the education of their children, including how they may be disciplined at school, was at odds with the rights of educators to maintain discipline and order. The trial court reasoned that, based on interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment liberty clause, parents do indeed have a protected right to decide among methods of discipline for their children.
At the same time, the trial court found that as important as parent’s rights are, they are neither fundamental nor absolute, they are not afforded the highest degree of constitutional protection, and they do not apply across all situations. The court was of the opinion that because maintaining discipline and order were not only justified but essential for schools, such goals were more compelling and vital than a parent’s right to choose disciplinary consequences for their children in a school setting. The court also explained that due to the controversial nature of school discipline and corporal punishment, on which there was not unquestioned social consensus, it would be unreasonable to suggest that parental opposition to corporal punishment was fundamental and thus constitutionally protected.
Baker further provided guidance on whether corporal punishment without due process violated Fourteenth Amendment liberty protections, and it offered some criteria for determining what might be considered minimum standards for procedural due process. The court pointed out that students have a liberty interest in corporal punishment cases, and thus, procedural due process is a requirement in corporal punishment proceedings.
In order to balance the protected interests of students and schools in corporal punishment cases, the court further listed minimal procedures that might constitute procedural due process. These procedures include
  • informing students beforehand that corporal punishment is a possibility for specific types of misbehavior;
  • using corporal punishment after alternative methods of behavior modification have been tried and not as a first line of punishment;
  • imposing corporal punishment in the presence of at least one other school official, who has been told, with the student present, why the student is receiving corporal punishment;
  • if requested, informing the parent in writing of the reasons for corporal punishment; and
  • identifying the school officials witnessing the punishment.

The Court’s Ruling


The Supreme Court affirmed this ruling but eventually modified these procedures slightly in Ingraham v. Wright (1977). The decisions still provide some guidance to school officials and policymakers on what is considered procedural due process in corporal punishment cases.
On the question of whether corporal punishment is to be considered cruel and unusual punishment, the court acknowledged that such a question was unsettled. Even so, the trial court determined that the type and form of corporal punishment in Baker, two licks to the buttocks with a wooden drawer divider, did not rise to the level of cruel and unusual punishment. The Supreme Court later clarified that the cruel and unusual punishment clause does not apply to corporal punishment in schools, even if it is “exceptionally harsh” in nature, as in Ingraham v. Wright.
M. Karega Rausch

See also Due Process; Fourteenth Amendment; Ingraham v. Wright; Parental Rights
Legal Citations
  • Baker v. Owen, 395 F. Supp. 294 (M.D.N.C. 1975), aff’d, 423 U.S. 907 (1975).
  • Ingraham v. Wright, 430 U.S. 651 (1977).