Students’ Right to Freedom of Speech: The Tinker Case
In 1965, five students from Des Moines wore black arm bands to school to protest America's involvement in the Vietnam War. Those strips of cloth became the subject of a case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Because of those Iowa students, the right of all American students to express their political opinions was strengthened.
In the 1960s, the United States began sending troops to Southeast Asia. The nation of Vietnam had been divided into two parts, with North Vietnam friendly to Communist China on its northern border while South Vietnam looked to the United States for support. The United States feared that if communists from North Vietnam took control of South Vietnam, communism would soon overrun all of Southeast Asia.
Some Americans opposed sending American soldiers to Vietnam. In their opinion, the war cost too many American lives and too much money. In 1965, a group of Des Moines high school and junior high students met at the home of Christopher Eckhardt to make plans to protest the United States' participation in the Vietnam War. The students agreed to wear black armbands the following week to protest the deaths of American soldiers in the war.
Word of the planned protest spread. School principals were afraid that student protests would disrupt classrooms and school activities. They passed a ruling prohibiting armbands. They said that any students wearing them would be sent home and not allowed back to classes until the armbands were gone.
On December 16, five students wore armbands to school despite the principals' rule. Three of students, Christopher Eckhardt, Christine Singer and Bruce Clark, were from Roosevelt High School. John Tinker attended North High School and his sister, Mary Beth, went to Harding Junior High.
Christopher Eckhardt recalled that several students threatened him, "I wore the black armband over a camel-colored jacket. The captain of the football team attempted to rip it off. I turned myself in to the principal's office where the vice principal asked if 'I wanted a busted nose.' He said seniors wouldn't like the armband." A school counselor told Christopher that colleges would not accept him if he was a war protestor and might need to find a new high school if he did not remove the arm band.
When the five students refused to remove the armbands, they were expelled from school. They returned after Christmas break without the armbands but wearing all black clothes.
The Des Moines School Board met to review the principals' rule. They supported the ruling because they decided that principals needed the authority to keep order in the schools. The Vietnam War was becoming a very emotional issue across the country, and school officials were afraid that there could be disturbances at school if protest symbols showed up in class.
The case did not end there, however. In March 1966, John Tinker, Mary Beth Tinker, Chris Eckhardt and their parents filed a formal complaint in U.S. District Court arguing that the students' rights had been violated. The District Court dismissed the case, as did a Federal Appeals Court. The case finally reached all the way to the United States Supreme Court on Nov. 12, 1968.
The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the right of all American citizens to freedom of speech. But does that freedom apply to high school and middle school students in Des Moines, Iowa? The Supreme Court said it does! The Supreme Court ruled in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District that students and teachers continue to have the right of free speech and expression when they are at school. They do not "shed their constitutional rights at the school house gate," Judge Abe Fortas wrote in the Court's ruling.
Does this mean that school officials do not have the right to maintain order in the schools or to prevent things that disrupt classes? No, the Court said. Schools can still restrict students' actions or expressions when there is enough reason to believe those actions would disrupt the school or invade the rights of other students. However, just because an opinion is unpopular or makes other students or teachers uncomfortable, school officials cannot prevent students from sharing their views. In the Tinker case, the Court ruled, school officials had not proved that the students' armbands would significantly disrupt classroom or school activities.
The Tinker case is a very important decision protecting student rights. Because five Des Moines students were brave enough to stand up for an unpopular position, all American students enjoy greater freedom to express their opinions.
- Johnson, John W. The Struggle for Student Rights: Tinker v. Des Moines and the 1960s. Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 1997.
- Street Law and The Supreme Court Historical Society. "Landmark Supreme Court Cases: Tinker v. Des Moines (1969)." www.landmarkcases.org. http://landmarkcases.org/en/landmark/cases/tinker_v_des_moines
- American Bar Association, Division for Public Education. "Online Conversation: Tinker V. Des Moines School Plaintiffs." www.abanet.org. http://www.abanet.org/publiced/lawday/tinker/case.html
Written for Iowa Pathways by Tom Morain.