WASHINGTON -- Women and girls who are victims of illegal sexual harassment, abuse or assault in schools or colleges have a right to collect money damages, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in a decision that women's rights activists called "a stunning victory."
This means that sexual discrimination complaints on campus or in school buildings will now have a stronger remedy, not limited to court orders or to cutting off federal aid.
The ruling -- a decision the Bush administration had urged against -- was the court's first on sexual harassment since that issue figured prominently last fall in the Senate fight over Justice Clarence Thomas' nomination.
Justice Thomas supported the outcome of the case but joined in a separate opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia implying that the court was wrong in 1979 when it allowed women and girls to sue individually to enforce their rights against sex discrimination in education.
The ruling was a victory for a former high school student in Georgia who complained that her economics teacher talked to her in sexual terms, kissed her forcibly and three times forced her to have intercourse with him at school.
Christine Franklin's legal victory came in the 20th anniversary year of so-called "Title IX," a 1972 addition to federal civil rights law that outlawed sexual discrimination in any educational program or institution that gets federal aid.
Title IX outlaws intentional sexual bias, and prior Supreme Court rulings have made clear that that includes sexual harassment -- making unwanted or forced sexual overtures. The law has been used mainly to protect females, although it outlaws sex bias against males, too.
Until yesterday, it had been unclear just how far remedies for violating Title IX would go.
Federal judges clearly had power to order that sexual bias in education cease, and the government had the authority to cut off aid to any program or institution it found to be breaking the 1972 law.
The new ruling clearly added money damages to those remedies, with the money to go directly to the victims of sexual abuse or harassment.
Ellen Vargyas, senior counsel of the National Women's Law Center here, said: "The decision for the first time makes Title IX a truly effective protection against sex discrimination in education.
It was Ms. Vargyas' organization that called the decision "a stunning victory for women."
But school and university lawyers said they feared the ruling could result in multimillion-dollar damage verdicts against local school districts and institutions of higher learning.
"I could see her [Ms. Franklin] winning $6 million in this kind of case," said Gwendolyn Gregory, deputy general counsel attorney for the National School Boards Association. She noted that school systems and colleges may be held liable for sexual harassment by teachers even if officials were unaware of the conduct.
Justice Byron R. White wrote the court's main opinion, flatly rejecting a plea by the Bush administration and by county school officials in Georgia not to allow money damages for violations of Title IX.
Justice White's opinion noted that the court, in a 1979 ruling, had allowed individual women and girls to sue personally to enforce their rights under Title IX. Given that right to sue, it follows that all normal remedies -- including money damages -- should be available when sexual bias has been proven.
His opinion was supported by three members of the court's conservative bloc -- Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor and David H. Souter -- and by its two liberals -- Justices Harry A. Blackmun and John Paul Stevens.
Justice Scalia's separate opinion in the case was supported not only by Justice Thomas but by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist. Mr. Scalia said those justices supported only the result of the case, not the White opinion, and did so because a law passed by Congress six years ago seemed to indicate that damages should be a remedy.
Christine Franklin was in the ninth grade in North Gwinnett High School in Georgia when her economics teacher and sports coach, Andrew Hill, befriended her. That was in 1986.
Over the next three years, she later would complain, he made sexual remarks to her, forcibly kissed her in a school parking lot, called her at home and asked for dates, and had intercourse with her twice in the school's field house and once in the school stadium's press box.
After the school principal learned about the complaints and started an investigation, Mr. Hill resigned. The investigation was dropped.
Federal officials investigated her case but took no action after the school adopted a procedure for handling such complaints. Ms. Franklin then sued.