Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)

1965 Tinker v. Des Moines: Students' freedom of expression in schools
during the Vietnam War

In mid-December, 1965, at the time of the Vietnam war, a small group of young students in Des Moines, Iowa, decided to express their disagreement with their government's foreign policy in Vietnam and their support for a peace agreement. Four of these students were members of the Tinker family. They were Paul Tinker (8 years old, second grade), Hope Tinker (11 years old, fifth grade), Mary Beth Tinker (13 years old, eighth grade), and John Tinker (15 years old, 11th grade). Another student involved in the process was Christopher Eckhardt (16 years old, 11th grade).  They chose to express their opinion by wearing black armbands and by fasting.

These students had observed their parents engaging in similar protest activities against the Vietnam War for some time, and at the end of 1965 they decided that it was important for them to participate in the peace movement as well. The father of the Tinker children was a Methodist minister. The mother of Christopher Eckhardt was an official in the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.

A few days before the protest was about to begun, school authorities learned about the plans and adopted a policy stipulating that any student wearing an arm band to school would have to remove it or face suspension. Once the Tinker siblings, Eckhardt, and other classmates arrived to school with their black armbands, they were suspended and sent home. The Tinker parents filed suit in federal court, charging that both the rule adopted by the school and the disciplinary action taken against the students violated their First Amendment right to freedom of speech and expression.

Several years later, in February 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court noted in its verdict that the school authorities had singled out for prohibition a particular symbol (black armbands worn to exhibit opposition to US involvement in Vietnam), while noting students in some of those schools were wearing buttons relating to national political parties and to Nazism. Based on the fact that the protesting students did not disrupt school programs and did not interfere with the rights of others, the court concluded that "the prohibition of expression of one particular opinion, at least without evidence that it is necessary to avoid material and substantial interference with schoolwork or discipline, is not constitutionally permissible."

One of the most important implications of Tinker v. Des Moines is that freedom of expression rights do not vanish when people cross the school gate. As the Court stated, "students in school as well as out of school are 'persons' under our Constitution." Indeed, the historic relevance of the Court verdict is that it extended freedom of expression rights to students and teachers in school settings. At the same time, it specified that these rights should not interfere with school discipline and with the rights of others. This verdict was summarized by the Court in the three main points:

1. In wearing armbands, the petitioners were quiet and passive. They were not disruptive and did not impinge upon the rights of others. In these circumstances, their conduct was within the protection of the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth.

2. First Amendment rights are available to teachers and students, subject to application in light of the special characteristics of the school environment.

3. A prohibition against expression of opinion, without any evidence that the rule is necessary to avoid substantial interference with school discipline or the rights of others, is not permissible under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

The concluding paragraph of the US Court decision speaks for itself:

    "As we have discussed, the record does not demonstrate any facts which might reasonably have led school authorities to forecast substantial disruption of or material interference with school activities, and no disturbances or disorders on the school premises in fact occurred. These petitioners merely went about their ordained rounds in school. Their deviation consisted only in wearing on their sleeve a band of black cloth, not more than two inches wide. They wore it to exhibit their disapproval of the Vietnam hostilities and their advocacy of a truce, to make their views known, and, by their example, to influence others to adopt them. They neither interrupted school activities nor sought to intrude in the school affairs or the lives of others. They caused discussion outside of the classrooms, but no interference with work and no disorder. In the circumstances, our Constitution does not permit officials of the State to deny their form of expression."

If you want to read the entire transcript of the US Court decision on Tinker V. Des Moines, please click here:
http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/cas/comm/free_speech/tinker.html


Sources:  

Haubrich,Vernon F. & Michael W. Apple (1975). Schooling and the Rights of Children. Wisconsin: McCutchan.

La Morte, Michael W. (1990). School Law. Massachusetts: Allyn and Bacon.

Reutter, Edmund E. JR. (1982). The Supreme Courts' Impact on Public Education. Reutter.

www.bc.edu/free_speech

http://www.nd.edu/~rbarger/www7/rights.html

Prepared by DS

October 2001

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