More than most justices of the Supreme Court, Abe Fortas had a strong interest in the civil liberties of children -- particularly with regard to their First Amendment and due process rights in school. But no justice in the history of the court has been so passionate and consistent a paladin of the young as William Brennan.

In conversation, a recurring theme was the need -- as he put it in one of his dissents -- to teach the young "that our Constitution is a living reality, not parchment preserved under glass."

That could not happen, Brennan would say, simply by having kids memorize the Bill of Rights. The words have to "get off the printed page" and into the real lives of the students.

Brennan heartily agreed with one of his predecessors, Justice Robert Jackson, that in the schools, there must be "scrupulous protection of constitutional freedoms of the individual if we are not to strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount principles of our government as mere platitudes." How can the Fourth Amendment, for instance, be anything but a platitude to a student who is searched in school under much lesser constitutional standards than the Fourth Amendment specifically demands?

Yet in New Jersey v. T.L.O., the majority of the court exposed students throughout the country to invasions of their privacy without probable cause. Kids, said Brennan in his angry dissent, learn much more by example than by what they read in books. So what reason will they now have to believe that the alleged constitutional right to privacy has anything to do with them?

Though Brennan was very slow to anger, he wrote a furious rebuke when the court refused to review a case involving a schoolchild who had been stripped of her rights and her dignity. Public comments by justices objecting to the court's refusal to grant certiorari are rare, but this time Brennan exploded.

Along with her schoolmates in a public school complex in Indiana, 13-year-old Diane Doe had been subject to a mass, random, warrantless hunt for drugs by school officials and police, accompanied by German shepherds on the force. All the children were held in custody in their classrooms. They could not leave for 2 1/2 hours while the dogs sniffed each one as print and broadcast reporters, invited by the raiders, watched.

One of the dogs, Brennan wrote, came to Diane and "repeatedly pushed its nose and muzzle into her legs." Such intense attention led to the strip-searching of Diane. No drugs were found. What had excited the police dog was the scent of Diane's own dog, with which she had been playing before going to school.

Diane and her parents sued on multiple Fourth Amendment grounds, and while she eventually won the right to move for damages because of the strip search, she had lost her other claims, including her contention that being sniffed by a police dog is a search as defined by the Fourth Amendment.

Brennan thoroughly agreed with her, declaring himself astonished that the courts below "did not find that the school's use of the dogs constituted an invasion of the petitioner's reasonable expectation of privacy. . . . We do not know what class {the} petitioner was attending when the police and dogs burst in, but the lesson the school authorities taught her that day will undoubtedly make a greater impression than the one her teacher had hoped to convey."

Brennan was also dismayed when, in the Hazelwood case two years ago, public school principals were given the power to practically demolish the First Amendment rights of students. The new scope of official censorship could encompass "school-sponsored publications, theatrical productions" and any expression that "associates the school with any position other than neutrality on matters of political controversy."

In his dissent, Brennan -- kindly as he is off the bench -- accused the majority of the court of giving school officials the license to act as "thought police." Instead of "teaching children to respect the diversity of ideas that is fundamental to the American system, the court today teaches youth "to discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes."

Soon after the decision came down, I met two school principals in Indiana who had decided to ignore the Hazelwood decision and stay with the 1969 Tinker opinion by Abe Fortas, which had been the Magna Carta of student First Amendment rights until Hazelwood. Brennan was pleased when I told him. "I was hoping," he said, "that the message would get out that Hazelwood is not mandatory."

Some kids, then, would still be able to experience the Constitution as something belonging to them. And there was hope that other principals would also stick with Tinker. Brennan always finds some reason for hope that the Constitution will stay alive, no matter what happens from time to time on the court.