Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District

393 U.S. 503 (1969)

"It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." — Justice Abe Fortas

Case Summary

In December 1965, at a meeting in Des Moines, Iowa, adults and students discussed how they could publicize their objections to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. The students decided that they would wear black armbands to school to show their sorrow for those on both sides who had died in the war and their support for a proposed truce. When the principals of their schools became aware of the students’ plan to wear the armbands, they adopted a policy that any student joining the protest would be asked to remove the armband and that any student who refused to do so would be suspended until he or she returned to school without the armband. The students were aware of this newly adopted policy.    

On December 16, Mary Beth Tinker, a 13-year-old junior high student, and Christopher Eckhardt, a student at Roosevelt High School, wore two-inch-wide black armbands to their schools. On December 17, Mary Beth Tinker’s 15-year-old brother, John Tinker, a student at North High School, and several other high school students did the same. The armbands caused some comments and warnings, and some students poked fun at the demonstrating students. One teacher indicated that his lesson was “wrecked” because of the demonstration and that the armbands diverted students’ minds from their regular lessons. However, no disturbances on school premises occurred. The demonstrating students merely went to their classes wearing the black armbands. Mary Beth and five high school students, including John and Christopher, were sent home and told that they could come back to school if they removed the armbands.

The students’ parents filed a complaint in a U.S. District Court and asked for an injunction to restrain school officials from disciplining the students. The District Court dismissed the complaint. The court reasoned that the action taken by school officials was a reasonable response to prevent possible disturbance of the public school environment. The parents appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. This court was equally divided, thus allowing the District Court's decision to stand. The parents then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Legal Issue

The Court considered the following question:

Is the peaceful wearing of armbands by students attending public schools to protest the nation's involvement in war freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment?

Decision

By a 7-2 vote, the Supreme Court overturned the judgment of the lower courts and ruled in favor of the First Amendment rights of public school students. Justice Abe Fortas wrote the opinion of the Court. He noted that wearing the arm bands was “closely akin to ‘pure speech’ ” which the Supreme Court has repeatedly held falls under First Amendment protection. He then declared that “First Amendment rights, applied in light of the special characteristics of the school environment, are available to teachers and students. It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate (emphasis added). … In order for the State, in the person of school officials, to justify prohibition of a particular expression of opinion, it must be able to show that its action was caused by something more than a mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint. Certainly where there is no finding and no showing that engaging in the forbidden conduct would ‘materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school,’ the prohibition cannot be sustained. … In the present case, the District Court made no such finding, and our independent examination of the record fails to yield evidence that the school authorities had reason to anticipate that the wearing of the armbands would substantially interfere with the work of the school or impinge upon the rights of other students. … It is also relevant that the school authorities did not purport to prohibit the wearing of all symbols of political or controversial significance.” 

Justice Hugo Black dissented and wrote an opinion in which he expressed his view that the Court’s holding in this case ushered in what he deemed to be an entirely new era in which the power to control pupils is in ultimate effect transferred to the Supreme Court. He disagreed with Fortas’ view that the Bill of Rights does not stop at the schoolhouse gate: “The truth is that a teacher of kindergarten, grammar school, or high school pupils no more carries into a school with him a complete right to freedom of speech and expression than an anti-Catholic or anti-Semite carries with him a complete freedom of speech and religion into a Catholic church or Jewish synagogue. … This case, therefore, wholly without constitutional reasons in my judgment, subjects all the public schools in the country to the whims and caprices of their loudest-mouthed, but maybe not their brightest, students. I, for one, am not fully persuaded that school pupils are wise enough … to run the 23,390 public school systems in our 50 states. I wish, therefore, wholly to disclaim any purpose on my part to hold that the Federal Constitution compels the teachers, parents, and elected school officials to surrender control of the American public school system to public school students.”

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