Tinker vs. Des Moines

By:- Punya Rai

CITATION393 US 503 (1969)


That freedom stems from the ruling in a 1969 case in which a group of students wore black armbands to school in order to protest U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Their Des Moines high school enacted a policy in response that any student wearing an armband to school would be suspended. Several of the students were sent home, and their parents helped them to file suit alleging that their freedom of expression was being violated. While the District Court and the Court of Appeals found that the school’s actions were reasonable in order to maintain school discipline, the Supreme Court disagreed.


At a public school in Des Moines, Iowa, students planned to wear black armbands at school as a silent protest against the Vietnam War. When the principal became aware of the plan, he warned the students that they would be suspended if they wore the armbands to school because the protest might cause a disruption in the learning environment. Despite the warning, some students wore the armbands and were suspended.

During their suspension, the students’ parents sued the school for violating their children’s right to free speech. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa sided with the school’s position, ruling that wearing the armbands could disrupt learning. The students appealed the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit but lost and took the case to the Supreme Court of the United States


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.


Was the wearing of an armband for the purpose of expressing certain views the type of symbolic act that is within the Free Speech Clause of the first amendment?


  1.  The school’s action was unconstitutional and violated students’ right in the First Amendment.  The students who wore the armband were quiet and the protest was silent. They did not violate anyone else’s right and their action followed up their rights in the First Amendment. The first amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”(U.S. Constitution), saying that people have the freedom to express anything. The student’s protest did not violate any others’ right of education according to the Justices’ decision.
  2. The reason for disturbing the education and sent away from school without any chance to say anything. Their right to due process was violated in this case. The 14th Amendment states, “nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”(U.S. Co The students were not given a fair trial for their defines. The students were suspended just under institution)
  3. Schools do not stop students from wearing symbolic items. Justice Fortas stated, “school authorities did not purport to prohibit the wearing of all symbols of political or controversial significance. The record shows that students in some of the schools wore buttons relating to national political campaigns, and some even wore the Iron Cross, traditionally a symbol of Nazism. The order prohibiting the wearing of armbands did not extend to these,”(Justice Fortas). Therefore, the school’s suspension of the students wearing armband was not constitutional and fair compared to the other symbolic items that were not a problem.


The school did not act unconstitutional. The reason is that wearing armband could have been a disturbance to the education in school. Justice Black noted, “it is a myth to say that any person has a constitutional right to say what he pleases, where he pleases, and when he pleases.”, “took the students’ minds off their work and diverted them to thoughts about highly emotional subject of the Vietnam War”(Justice Black). He claimed that the armband disturbed the classwork and affected others with an emotional topic. He said that although the majority of the Supreme Court claimed that the armband did not interrupt other students, there are no evidence to prove that. His claim was reasonable enough to defend for the school.


In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Tinkers. Justice Fortas wrote the majority opinion, ruling that student retain their constitutional right of freedom of speech while in public school. Justices Black and Harlan dissented. The Court ruled that student are entitled to exercise their constitutional rights, even while in school. The justices reasoned that neither “students [n]or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Because student expression is protected by the First Amendment even while in school, school officials must provide constitutionally valid reasons for regulating student expression.

The justification for the regulation must be more than “a mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint.” School officials must show that the expression would cause a “material and substantial disruption” with the discipline and educational function of the school. The Court decided that allowing the Tinkers to wear their armbands protesting the Vietnam conflict would not “substantially interfere with the work of the school or impinge upon the rights of other students.”

Wearing the armbands was a “silent, passive expression of opinion” that did not involve any “disorder or disturbance,” and was unlikely to cause a “material and substantial disruption” in the school. In addition, the justices noted that the school officials specifically targeted anti-war armbands but did not prohibit the wearing of any other symbols conveying a political message. Reasoning that “the prohibition of expression of one particular opinion … is not constitutionally permissible,” they concluded that “school officials do not possess absolute authority over their students.”

In his dissenting opinion, Justice Black acknowledged that while the content of speech generally cannot be regulated or censored, “it is a myth to say that any person has a constitutional right to say what he pleases, where he pleases, and when he pleases.” According to Justice Black, the Tinkers’ armbands did indeed cause a disturbance by taking students’ minds off their classwork “and divert [Ing] them to thoughts about the highly emotional subject of the Vietnam War.” This was exactly what school officials were trying to prevent. Justice Black believed that the majority’s ruling was too restrictive on school officials, overly limiting their control over their schools, and subjecting public schools to “the whims and caprices of their loudest-mouthed … students.


The Supreme Court reversed because the wearing of armbands was entirely divorced from actually or potentially disruptive conduct by those that participated in it. Petitioners’ conduct was closely akin to pure speech which was entitled to comprehensive protection under the First Amendment, absent facts that might reasonably have led school officials to forecast substantial disruption of or material interference with school activities. 

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 was no evidence whatever of petitioners’ interference, actual or nascent, with the schools’ work or of collision with the rights of other students to be secure and to be let alone. Accordingly, this case did not concern speech or action that intruded upon the work of the schools or the rights of other students.


 1)  Lexisnexis.com

 2) Landmarkcases.org 

 3) Drexel.edu

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