Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District 1969

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Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District 1969

Petitioners: John P. Tinker, Mary Beth Tinker, and Christopher Eckhardt

Respondents: Des Moines Independent Community School District, et al.

Petitioners' Claim: That suspending them from school for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War violated the freedom of speech.

Chief Lawyer for Petitioners: Dan L. Johnston

Chief Lawyer for Respondents: Allan A. Herrick

Justices for the Court: William J. Brennan, Jr., William O. Douglas, Abe Fortas, Thurgood Marshall, Potter Stewart, Earl Warren, Byron R. White

Justices Dissenting: Hugo Lafayette Black, John Marshall Harlan II

Date of Decision: February 24, 1969

Decision: The Supreme Court struck down the school regulation that resulted in the suspensions.

Significance: Students do not give up their freedom of speech in school.

Whose war is it?

The Vietnam War, which lasted from 1955 until 1974, was a battle between North and South Vietnam. North Vietnam wanted to unite the country under communism. South Vietnam resisted with help from the United States. By the end of 1965, there were 180,000 American troops fighting in Vietnam.

Although the war was ten years old in 1965, there was no sign that North Vietnam would be defeated. Many Americans became opposed to the war. Some thought a civil war in Vietnam was not America's concern. They were angry to see young American die while fighting for another country. Others were generally opposed to human beings killing each other. Vietnam War protests became common in America.

Peaceful protest

In December 1965, a group of adults and school children gathered in Des Moines, Iowa. They met to discuss ways to voice their opposition to America's involvement in the Vietnam War. They eventually decided to wear black armbands with the peace symbol for the remainder of the holiday season. They also decided to fast, meaning live without eating, on December 16 and on New Year's Eve.

The students at the meeting included sixteen-year-old Christopher Eckhardt, fifteen-year-old John P. Tinker, and thirteen-year-old Mary Beth Tinker. Christopher and John attended high schools in Des Moines, and John's sister Mary attended junior high school. They decided to join their parents by wearing black armbands and fasting too.

The principals of the Des Moines public schools learned about these plans. They were worried the protest would cause trouble because a former student who had been killed in Vietnam still had friends at one of the high schools. Some students said they would wear different colored armbands to support the war. To avoid any conflict, on December 14 the principals adopted a policy that any student wearing a black armband would be asked to remove it and would be suspended if he refused.

Christopher, John, and Mary knew about the new policy but decided to follow their plan. John and Mary wore their black armbands to school on December 16, and Christopher wore his the next day. Although the armbands did not disrupt school, all three students were suspended and told not to return until they removed the armbands. The students did not return until after New Year's Day, when their protest ended.

Meanwhile, the students and their parents filed a lawsuit in federal district court. They asked the court to stop the schools from punishing them for wearing the black armbands. The district court dismissed the case, saying the schools were allowed to prevent disturbances. The students appealed, but the federal court of appeals affirmed (approved) the district court's decision. They then took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court. They argued that the schools had violated their right to free speech.

Free speech in school

With a 7–2 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the students. Writing for the Court, Justice Abe Fortas said wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War was a form of speech called "symbolic" speech. Symbolic speech conveys a message or idea with symbols or actions instead of words.

The First Amendment protects all kinds of speech, including symbolic speech. It says, "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging [limiting] the freedom of speech." State and local governments, including public schools in Des Moines, Iowa, must obey the freedom of speech under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Justice Fortas said students have free speech rights under the First Amendment just like adults. "Students in school as well as out of school are 'persons' under our Constitution." Students do not give up the freedom of speech when they go to school. Justice Fortas said this means schools can interfere with free speech only when it is necessary to prevent actual disruptions.

The evidence showed that the students had not caused any disruptions. Instead, they had made a peaceful protest against the Vietnam War. The schools stopped them because other students might not like the protest; but, the freedom of speech protects the right to say things other people might not like to hear. After all, these same schools let students wear buttons to support political campaigns, and even allowed one student to wear an Iron Cross, the symbol of the German Nazis from World War II. Justice Fortas said the freedom of speech prevented the schools from allowing some political speech but punishing Christopher, John, and Mary for their protest.

Children should be seen and not heard

Justice Hugo Lafayette Black wrote a dissenting opinion, meaning he disagreed with the Court's decision. Justice Black said the First Amendment does not give people the freedom to say anything, anywhere, anytime. "Iowa's public schools . . . are operated to give students an opportunity to learn, not to talk politics by actual speech, or by 'symbolic' speech." Justice Black thought schools should be allowed to prevent speech that interferes with the job of learning.

Justice Black feared the Court's decision would give students the right to disobey school rules anytime they wanted to exercise free speech. He said "the Federal Constitution [does not compel] the teachers, parents, and elected school officials to surrender control of the American public school system to public school students."

Since Tinker, the Supreme Court has limited the freedom of speech for students in school. In Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser (1986), the Court said Bethel High School was allowed to suspend a student for giving a speech during a school assembly that referred to sexual intercourse. The Court said schools can limit free speech in order to teach good morals.

Suggestions for further reading

Evans, J. Edward. Freedom of Speech. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, Inc., 1990.

Farish, Leah. The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech, Religion, and the Press. Hillside, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1998.


D oes the freedom of speech allow a student to write a story about exploding a nuclear bomb in class? That question arose at Tallwood High School in Virginia Beach, Virginia, in May 1999.

Christopher Bullock, a sixteen-year-old junior, wrote the story for a required state writing test. The story's main character gave a speech to announce a gift for his school. Strapped to the character's chest, the gift turned out to be a nuclear bomb that the character exploded at the end of his speech. He said, "I have chosen this gift because school has given me nothing but stress, heartache, and pain. . . . I hope you all enjoy the light show for what little time you have left."

Tallwood High School suspended Bullock after learning about the story, and the police filed criminal charges. Bullock explained that the story was a fantasy and not a real threat. According to attorney Ann Beason, the freedom of speech protects the right to write a fantasy story about a bomb threat. The police eventually dropped the criminal charges, and Tallwood allowed Bullock to return to school.

King, David C. The Right to Speak Out. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1997.

Klinker, Philip A. The First Amendment. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Silver Burdett Press, 1991.

Mathews, Jay. "Student's Fantasy Violence Has Real Consequences." Washington Post, May 29, 1999.

Mathews, Jay. "Va. Student Cleared in Bomb Essay." Washington Post, June 11, 1999.

Pascoe, Elaine. Freedom of Expression: The Right to Speak Out in America. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1992.

Steele, Philip, Philip Skele, and Penny Clarke. Freedom of Speech? New York: Franklin Watts, 1997.

Zeinert, Karen. Free Speech: From Newspapers to Music Lyrics. Hillside, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1995.