On Tuesday, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Safford School District v. Redding, the case of Savana Redding, an eighth-grade girl who was strip-searched by school officials looking for prescription-strength ibuprofen.

It’s an interesting and important case, and I’ve got lots to say about it — expect another couple of posts on the subject in the next day or two. But I’d like to start by clearing up a misconception.

A reporter named David G. Savage covered the case for the Tribune Company, which publishes the Baltimore Sun and the Los Angeles Times. In his story, which appeared in both of those papers, he said that when Justice Scalia asked Matthew Wright, the school district’s attorney, whether a body cavity search would be permissible in a school setting, Wright “insisted it would be legal.”

Savage’s take on the exchange has been echoed by a bunch of blogs. But it’s a profound misrepresentation of what Wright actually said.

Chief Justice Roberts asked Wright whether a cavity search “would have been justified in this case,” and Wright said it would not have been. Then Scalia asked Wright to confirm that response, and he did. A few moments later Justice Ginsburg raised the issue, and Wright said he would be comfortable with the Court making a “bright line” declaration — “this is something,” he said, “that the Court can clearly say is off limits.”

Later Scalia raised the issue again, asking “what would you require before you would allow a cavity search?” And again Wright said he thought they should be off limits: “A bright line rule. I would not allow it.” To start with, he said, school officials aren’t trained to conduct those searches — if they suspected that a student had contraband stashed somewhere that only a cavity search would find it, “the first thing to do would be to send them to the hospital.”

Then it was Justice Souter’s turn. He asked whether such a search, even if off limits as a practical matter, could be legally justified. If school nurses were trained to conduct cavity searches, he asked, would it be consitutionally permissible for them to do so? 

Wright said that it might “technically” be possible, but that no community would permit such a policy, and no administrator would seek permission for such searches. Given that cavity searches are regarded as problematic even among prisoners, he said, the Court would “not restrict or in any way inhibit the discretion of the administrator” if it were to say “‘you can’t go there’ on a body cavity search.”

So yes, Wright did admit, the fifth time he was asked, that he “could see” the possibility that cavity searches might be “technically” permissible under the Fourth Amendment. But he did not “insist” on their legality, as the Tribune reporter claimed. On the contrary, he said that a cavity search would have been improper in the case at hand, and he encouraged the court — three different times — to declare such searches unconstitutional in the school setting.