TINKER v. DES MOINES INDEPENDENT COMMUNITY SCHOOL DISTRICT

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Case Basics
Docket No. 
21
Petitioner 
John F. Tinker and Mary Beth Tinker, Minors et al.
Respondent 
Des Moines Independent Community School District et al.
Advocates
(Argued the cause for the petitioner)
(Argued the cause for the respondents)
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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.

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 
Decision: 7 votes for Tinker, 2 vote(s) against
Legal provision: Amendment 1: Speech, Press, and Assembly

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.

Cite this Page
TINKER v. DES MOINES INDEPENDENT COMMUNITY SCHOOL DISTRICT. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 16 August 2014. <http://www.oyez.org/cases/1960-1969/1968/1968_21/>.
TINKER v. DES MOINES INDEPENDENT COMMUNITY SCHOOL DISTRICT, The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, http://www.oyez.org/cases/1960-1969/1968/1968_21/ (last visited August 16, 2014).
"TINKER v. DES MOINES INDEPENDENT COMMUNITY SCHOOL DISTRICT," The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, accessed August 16, 2014, http://www.oyez.org/cases/1960-1969/1968/1968_21/.