Tinker v. Des Moines School District (1969)
In 1965, John Tinker, his sister Mary Beth, and a friend were sent home from school for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. The school had established a policy permitting students to wear several political symbols, but had excluded the wearing of armbands protesting the Vietnam War. Their fathers sued, but the District Court ruled that the school had not violated the Constitution. The Court of Appeals agreed with the lower court, and the Tinkers appealed to the Supreme Court.
In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the students had the right to wear armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War. Justice Abe Fortas wrote for the majority. He first emphasized that students have First Amendment rights: “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” While schools certainly have the right to establish rules relating to “the length of skirts or the type of clothing, to hair style,…[or] aggressive, disruptive action or even group demonstrations,” this case does not involve any of those issues. “The school officials banned and sought to punish petitioners for a silent, passive expression of opinion, unaccompanied by any disorder or disturbance on the part of petitioners. There is here no evidence whatever of petitioners' interference, …with the schools' work or of collision with the rights of other students to be secure and to be let alone. Accordingly, this case does not concern speech or action that intrudes upon the work of the schools or the rights of other students.”
Justice Hugo Black dissented. He pointed out that the case involved a small number of students who refused to obey the instructions of school officials, and argued that allowing this behavior would have a negative effect on schools and on the country as a whole.
Mary Beth Tinker eventually became a nurse and worked with the Veterans Administration. She later wrote that it was “a privilege to work with our veterans who had sacrificed part of their lives.… I work with a lot of paraplegics and quadriplegics, and some of them were injured in the Vietnam War… So I don't have any regrets about it at all. I'm proud to have been a part of anything that stopped the war.”
The Supreme Court has dealt with other school cases since Tinker. In Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser, 1986, the Court held that a high school student did not have the right under the First Amendment to use indecent language and sexual metaphors in a speech at a school assembly.
In Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 1988, the Court ruled that school officials could regulate the content of the student newspaper in any reasonable way. The principal had deleted student articles about teen pregnancy and about the impact of parental divorce on students at the school. In both Fraser and Kuhlmeier, the Court emphasized that students in public schools do not always have the same First Amendment rights as adults in other settings.
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