Tinker v. Des Moines (1969)

Mary Beth Tinker speaking recently at Ohio University.

Free Speech in Schools?

In December of 1965 in Des Moines, Iowa, Mary Beth Tinker, her brother, Christopher Ekhardt, and others planned  an organized protest of the U.S. war underway in Vietnam. The school learned of the organized protest–generally a silent protest with black armbands–and predicted it would distract and might be taken as disrespectful by some students. When the students arrived to school wearing the armbands, principals instructed them to remove the armbands or face suspension. The Tinkers and the others sued in U.S. district court on free speech grounds and eventually appealed to the Supreme Court. The Court ruled 7:2 for the students who challenged the suspension, declaring that the student’s right to political, symbolic speech based on the First Amendment overrode the school administrators’ concern for potential disorder. Read the passage from the Court’s opinion, watch the video,  and answer the questions that follow.

. . . 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. This has been the unmistakable holding of this Court for almost 50 years . . . Our problem involves direct, primary First Amendment rights akin to ‘pure speech’ . . . The school officials banned and sought to punish petitioners for a silent, passive expression of opinion, unaccompanied by any disorder or disturbance on the part of petitioners. There is here no evidence whatever of petitioners’ interference, actual or nascent, with the schools’ work or of collision with the rights of other students to be secure and to be let alone. Accordingly, this case does not concern speech or action that intrudes upon the work of the schools or the rights of other students. . . Clearly, the prohibition of expression of one particular opinion, at least without evidence that it is necessary to avoid material and substantial interference with schoolwork or discipline, is not constitutionally permissible. In our system, state-operated schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism. School officials do not possess absolute authority over their students. Students in school, as well as out of school, are ‘persons’ under our Constitution . . . In the absence of a specific showing of constitutionally valid reasons to regulate their speech, students are entitled to freedom of expression of their views. . . Majority Opinion by Mr. Justice Abe Fortas


Questions for Completion:

1. Why did the students sue the Des Moines school district and what constitutional principle was at issue in the case?

2. What point(s) did Justice Fortas make in the majority opinion?

3. How did the Supreme Court define the line between individual freedom and public order?

4. Based on the Tinker ruling, can a student wear a t-shirt that advocates for the firing of a teacher or for illegal drug use? Why or why not?


Photo/Image: Eli Hiller via Creative Commons