Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist.

The wearing of armbands in circumstances that are entirely divorced from actually or potentially disruptive conduct by those participating in it is closely akin to pure speech which, the United States Supreme Court has repeatedly held, is entitled to comprehensive protection under the First Amendment. 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.

Facts of the case:

In December 1965, a group of students in Des Moines held a meeting in the home of 16-year-old Christopher Eckhardt to plan a public showing of their support for a truce in the Vietnam war. They decided to wear black armbands throughout the holiday season and to fast on December 16 and New Year’s Eve. The principals of the Des Moines school learned of the plan and met on December 14 to create a policy that stated that any student wearing an armband would be asked to remove it, with refusal to do so resulting in suspension. On December 16, Mary Beth Tinker and Christopher Eckhardt wore their armbands to school and were sent home. The following day, John Tinker did the same with the same result. The students did not return to school until after New Year’s Day, the planned end of the protest. Through their parents, the students sued the school district for violating the students’ right of expression and sought an injunction to prevent the school district from disciplining the students. The district court dismissed the case and held that the school district’s actions were reasonable to uphold school discipline. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed the decision without opinion.

Brief Fact Summary:

Student speech may be regulated when such speech would materially and substantially interfere with the discipline and operation of a school.

Case Commentary:

Even if a topic is controversial, and some disruption may occur, expressive conduct is protected by the First Amendment. This decision is somewhat surprising because courts usually show greater deference to schools, based on their importance in helping children grow into disciplined, mature adults. Decisions since Tinker have taken a more restrictive view of free speech rights in this setting.