Street Law, Inc. and The Supreme Court Historical Society present

Landmark Cases of the U.S. Supreme Court

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Background summary & questions (•••)

John and Mary Beth Tinker were public school students in Des Moines, Iowa in December of 1965. As part of a group against American involvement in the Vietnam War, they decided to publicize their opposition by wearing black armbands to school. Having heard of the students' plans, the principals of the public schools in Des Moines adopted and informed students of a new policy concerning armbands. This policy stated that any student who wore an armband to school would be asked immediately to remove it. A student who refused to take off his or her armband would be suspended until agreeing to return to school without the band.

Two days later and aware of the school policy, the Tinker children and a friend decided to wear armbands to school. Upon arriving at school, the children were asked to remove their armbands. They did not remove the armbands and were subsequently suspended until they returned to school without their armbands.

The children returned to school without armbands after January 1, 1966, the date scheduled for the end of their protest. However, their fathers filed suit in U.S. District Court. This suit asked the court for a small amount of money for damages and an injunction to restrain school officials from enforcing their armband policy. Although the District Court recognized the children's First Amendment right to free speech, the court refused to issue an injunction, claiming that the school officials' actions were reasonable in light of potential disruptions from the students' protest. The Tinkers appealed their case to the U.S. Court of Appeals but were disappointed when a tie vote in that court allowed the District Court's ruling stand. As a result they decided to appeal the case to the Supreme Court of the United States.

The case came down to this fundamental question: Do the First Amendment rights of free speech extend to symbolic speech by students in public schools? And, if so, in what circumstances is that symbolic speech protected? The First Amendment states "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech." The Fourteenth Amendment extends this rule to state governments as well, of which school systems are a part. The First Amendment, however, does not identify which kinds of speech are protected. For example, it is not clear whether hate speech against an individual or group is protected. Neither does the First Amendment specify what types of expressive actions should be considered as speech.

The Supreme Court of the United States has made many attempts to determine what types of symbolic speech are protected under the First Amendment. In 1919, the Court decided in Schenck v. United States that an individual could be punished for distributing anti-World War I pamphlets urging non-compliance with the draft because the pamphlets "create[ed] a clear and present danger that they will bring about [a] substantive evil[ . . .] Congress has a right to prevent"—draft obstruction. The Court wrestled with the issue of the right to symbolic speech again in the case of Thornhill v. Alabama (1940) when the Court ruled that picketing was a form of symbolic speech protected by the First Amendment because no clear and present danger of destruction of life or property or of breach of the peace was inherent in the action. Three years later in West Virginia v. Barnette (1943), the Court extended the First Amendment protection of symbolic speech to students in public schools. In Barnette, the Court held "[i]f there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion. . . ."

In 1968 the Supreme Court of the United States agreed to hear Tinker's case and consider the constitutionality of the Des Moines principals' anti-armband policy. The Court's decision in Tinker v. Des Moines was handed down in 1969.

Questions to consider
  1. Do you think that the school policy banning armbands was fair? Why or why not?
  2. The students knew they would be suspended if they wore armbands to school and chose to do so anyway. Why do you think they ignored the rule?
  3. The First Amendment says "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech." Why do you think the Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that certain actions should have the same protection as verbal speech? Are these reasons valid?
  4. In both Schenck and Thornhill, the Court seemed to make a rule that certain actions were guaranteed protection under the First Amendment's freedom of speech clause as long as those actions did not . . . What rule or test did the Court seem to make?
  5. Pretend that students in your school wanted to protest the school-wide ban on smoking. Should they legally be allowed to protest by wearing T-shirts that read "Up with 'Butts'!"? Why or why not?
<Tinker V. Des moines