Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District 393 U.S. 503 (1969)

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TINKER v. DES MOINES INDEPENDENT COMMUNITY SCHOOL DISTRICT 393 U.S. 503 (1969)

Tinker is a leading modern decision on the subjects of symbolic speech and children ' srights. a group of adults and students in Des Moines planned to protest the vietnam war by wearing black armbands during the 1965 holiday season. On learning of this plan, the public school principals adopted a policy to forbid the wearing of arm-bands. Two high school students and one junior high school student wore armbands to school, refused to remove them, and were suspended until they might return without armbands. They sued in federal court to enjoin enforcement of the principals' policy and for nominal damages. The district court dismissed the complaint, and the court of appeals affirmed by an equally divided court. The Supreme Court reversed, 7–2, in an opinion by Justice abe fortas.

The wearing of these armbands was "closely akin to "pure speech" and protected by the first amendment. The school environment did imply limitations on the freedom of expression, but here the principals lacked justification for imposing any such limitations. The authorities' "undifferentiated fear" of disturbance was insufficient. While student expression could be forbidden when it materially disrupted school work or school discipline, these students had undertaken "a silent, passive expression of opinion, unaccompanied by any disorder or disturbance." Furthermore, only this "particular symbol … was singled out for prohibition"; political campaign buttons had been allowed, and even "the Iron Cross, traditionally a symbol of Nazism." (Justice Fortas may have been unaware of the vogue among surfers and their inland imitators.)

Justice hugo l. black dissented, accusing the majority of encouraging students to defy their teachers and arguing that the wearing of the armbands had, in fact, diverted other students' minds from their schoolwork. He did not ask how much the principals' reaction to the planned protest might have contributed to that diversion.

Kenneth L. Karst
(1986)