Tinker v. Des Moines

The 1969 Supreme Court case of Tinker v. Des Moines found that freedom of speech must be protected in public schools, provided the show of expression or opinion—whether verbal or symbolic—is not disruptive to learning. The Court ruled in favor of Tinker, a 13-year-old girl who wore black armbands to school to protest America's involvement in the Vietnam War.

Background of Tinker v. Des Moines

In December, 1965, Mary Beth Tinker made a plan to wear black armbands to her public school in Des Moines, Iowa as a protest to the Vietnam War. School officials learned of the plan and preemptively adopted a rule that prohibited all students from wearing armbands to school and announced to the students that they would be suspended for breaking the rule. On December 16, Mary Beth, along with her brother John and other students arrived at school wearing black armbands. When the students refused to remove the armbands they were suspended from school. 

The fathers of the students filed a suit with a U.S. District court, seeking an injunction that would overturn the school's armband rule. The court ruled against the plaintiffs on the grounds that the armbands might be disruptive. The plaintiffs appealed their case to a U.S. Court of Appeals, where a tie vote allowed the district ruling to stand. Backed by the ACLU, the case was then brought to the Supreme Court.

The Decision

The essential question posed by the case was whether symbolic speech of students in public schools should be protected by the First Amendment. The Court had addressed similar questions in a few previous cases. In Schneck v. United States (1919), the Court's decision favored restriction of symbolic speech in the form of anti-war pamphlets that urged citizens to resist the draft. In two later cases, Thornhill v. Alabama (1940) and Virginia v. Barnette (1943), the Court ruled in favor of First Amendment protection for symbolic speech.

In Tinker v. Des Moines, a vote of 7–2 ruled in favor of Tinker, upholding the right to free speech within a public school. Justice Fortas, writing for the majority opinion, stated that "...students (n)or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." Because the school could not show evidence of significant disturbance or disruption created by the students' wearing of the armbands, the Court saw no reason to restrict their expression of opinion while the students were attending school. The majority also noted that the school prohibited anti-war symbols while it allowed symbols expressing other opinions, a practice the Court considered unconstitutional.

Significance of Tinker v. Des Moines

By siding with the students, the Supreme Court ensured that the students had the right to free speech within schools as long as it did not disrupt the learning process. Tinker v. Des Moines has been invoked in other Supreme Court cases since the 1969 decision. Most recently, in 2002, the Court ruled against a student who held a banner stating "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" during a school event, arguing that the message might be interpreted as promoting illegal drug use. By contrast, the message in the Tinker case was a political opinion, and therefore there were no legal restrictions to protecting it under the First Amendment.