Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District

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Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District

In the landmark case of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503, 89 S. Ct. 733, 21 L. Ed. 2d 731 (1969), the U.S. Supreme Court extended the First Amendment's right to freedom of expression to public school students. The ruling, which occurred during the Vietnam War, granted students the right to express their political opinions as long as they did not disrupt the classroom. The Court made clear that public school administrators and school boards could not restrict First Amendment rights based on a general fear of disruption.

The case grew out of political opposition to the Vietnam War. In December 1965 a group of students in the Des Moines public school system decided to protest the war. John Tinker, 15 years old, his 13-year-old sister Mary Beth, and 16-year-old Christopher Eckhardt sought to publicize their antiwar position and their support for a truce by wearing black armbands to school in the weeks leading up to the Christmas holidays. School administrators became aware of the plan to wear armbands and immediately adopted a new policy that prohibited the wearing of armbands. Students who refused to remove them would be suspended until they agreed not to wear them. The three students, who were aware of the policy, arrived at their schools a few days later wearing the armbands. They were promptly suspended and sent home. They did not return to school until after the holiday season, when their planned protest period had expired.

The three teenagers filed a Civil Rights lawsuit in federal court through their fathers, asking that the court issue an Injunction that would bar the school system from disciplining the students. The district court sided with the school board, concluding that the schools had acted reasonably to prevent a disturbance of school discipline. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld this ruling on an evenly divided vote. The students then brought their case to the Supreme Court.

The Court, in a 7–2 decision, overturned the lower court rulings. Justice Abe Fortas, in his majority opinion, stated at the outset that students and teachers do not "shed their constitutional rights to Freedom of Speech or expression at the schoolhouse door." However, he acknowledged that the Court had upheld the authority of school officials to "prescribe and control conduct in the schools." Thus, the issue before the Court concerned the area where the First Amendment rights of students collided with the rights of school administrators to maintain order and discipline.

Justice Fortas noted that the actions taken by the three students had not been disruptive or aggressive. The protest was a "silent, passive expression of opinion," that had led to the suspension of only five students out of the 18,000 enrolled in the Des Moines schools. Though a few hostile comments had been made to the students who were wearing armbands, there had been no threats or acts of violence. Based on this factual record, Fortas found puzzling the district court's finding that the school had reasonable grounds for barring the armbands. The principals may have had general and nonspecific fears of a disturbance, but such fears were not sufficient to overcome the students' First Amendment rights. He pointed out that any departure from the normal school regimen was liable to cause trouble. However, the risk of a word or symbolic expression causing a disturbance was the "sort of hazardous freedom" that made the country strong and vigorous. The school system could not ban a particular expression of opinion unless it could show its actions were based on more than the "mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint."

In the case of the Des Moines schools there had been no findings that the armbands would substantially interfere with school operations or harm the rights of other students. Justice Fortas concluded that the principals sought to avoid controversy concerning the Vietnam War. This conclusion was reinforced by the fact that the schools had banned only the black armbands. The schools permitted students to wear political campaign buttons and even the Iron Cross, which was a symbol of Nazism. Students could not be singled out for their political views without that action being a violation of the First Amendment.

Justice Fortas concluded his opinion with a lecture on free speech and public schools. He stated that public schools were not "enclaves of totalitarianism," with school officials wielding absolute authority over their students. Students could not be regarded as "closed-circuit recipients" of state indoctrination. Therefore, absent a specific demonstration of "constitutionally valid reasons to regulate their speech, students are entitled to freedom of expression of their views." Students were entitled to this freedom whether in a classroom, a hallway, a cafeteria, or an athletic field. Absent a showing by school officials that the expression "materially disrupts class work or involves substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others," students must be guaranteed freedom of speech. In Fortas's view, freedom of speech was not confined to a "telephone booth or the four corners of a pamphlet, or to supervised and ordained discussion in a school classroom." Because the three students had not disrupted their schools with their passive displays of political protest, they were protected by the First Amendment.

Justice hugo black, in a dissenting opinion, angrily lamented the Court's endorsement of permissiveness. He argued that the conduct in question had been disruptive and that school officials had the right to control their classrooms. Black stated that it was a "myth to say that any person has a constitutional right to say what he pleases, where he pleases, and when he pleases." Teachers were hired to teach, and students were sent to school to learn; neither teacher nor students were sent into publicly funded schools to express their political views. Black foresaw an ominous future where students used the Court's decision to assert total control of their schools.

Justice Black's prophecy proved false. In addition, the Supreme Court issued decisions in the coming years that gave more power to school administrators to regulate student conduct. Nevertheless, the Tinker decision changed the legal landscape for students who sought to exercise their First Amendment rights.

Further readings

Farish, Leah. 1997. Tinker v. Des Moines: Student Protest. Berkeley Heights, N.J.: Enslow.

Johnson, John W. 1997. The Struggle for Student Rights: Tinker v. Des Moines and the 1960s. Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas.

Rappaport, Diane. 1993. Tinker v. Des Moines: Student Rights on Trial. New York: Harper Collins.


First Amendment; Protest.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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