Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District

Facts

Petitioner was a high school student who joined his parents in protesting the Vietnam War. The form of protest was to wear a black armband for a period of two weeks during the holiday season. When Petitioner arrived at school he was told to remove the armband or be suspended. He took the suspension and did not return to school until after the protest period ended, New Year’s Eve 1965.

Question

Does a prohibition against the wearing of armbands in public school, as a form of symbolic protest, violate the students’ freedom of speech protections guaranteed by the First Amendment?

Conclusion

Yes. Justice Abe Fortas delivered the opinion of the 7-2 majority. The Supreme Court held that the armbands represented pure speech that is entirely separate from the actions or conduct of those participating in it. The Court also held that the students did not lose their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech when they stepped onto school property. In order to justify the suppression of speech, the school officials must be able to prove that the conduct in question would materially and substantially interfere” with the operation of the school. In this case, the school district’s actions evidently stemmed from a fear of possible disruption rather than any actual interference. In his concurring opinion, Justice Potter Stewart wrote that children are not necessarily guaranteed the full extent of First Amendment rights. Justice Byron R. White wrote a separate concurring opinion in which he noted that the majority’s opinion relies on a distinction between communication through words and communication through action. Justice Hugo L. Black wrote a dissenting opinion in which he argued that the First Amendment does not provide the right to express any opinion at any time. Because the appearance of the armbands distracted students from their work, they detracted from the ability of the school officials to perform their duties, so the school district was well within its rights to discipline the students. In his separate dissent, Justice John M. Harlan argued that school officials should be afforded wide authority to maintain order unless their actions can be proven to stem from a motivation other than a legitimate school interest.”

Discussion

The wearing of the armband was singled out of all other symbolic speech engaged in by the student body. Clearly, this was designed to erase all opposition to the war speech in the schools and was not related to any legitimate purpose. There was no evidence that the wearing of the armbands caused any disruption of any class or school function.

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Location:
Des Moines Independent Community School District
Respondent:
Des Moines Independent Community School District
Petitioner:
Tinker
Warren Court
Citation:
393 US 503 (1969)
Argued:
Nov 12, 1968
Decided:
Feb 24, 1969