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Law School Case Brief

Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist. - 393 U.S. 503, 89 S. Ct. 733 (1969)


The wearing of armbands in circumstances that are entirely divorced from actually or potentially disruptive conduct by those participating in it is closely akin to pure speech which, the United States Supreme Court has repeatedly held, is entitled to comprehensive protection under the First Amendment. First Amendment rights, applied in light of the special characteristics of the school environment, are available to teachers and students. It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.


In 1965, Des Moines, Iowa residents John F. Tinker (15 years old), his siblings Mary Beth Tinker (13 years old), Hope Tinker (11 years old), and Paul Tinker (8 years old), along with their friend Christopher Eckhardt (16 years old) decided to wear black armbands to their schools (high school for John and Christopher, junior high for Mary Beth, elementary school for Hope and Paul) in protest of the Vietnam War and supporting the Christmas Truce called for by Senator Robert F. Kennedy. The principals of the Des Moines schools learned of the plan and met on December 14 to create a policy that stated that school children wearing an armband would be asked to remove it immediately. Students violating the policy would be suspended and allowed to return to school after agreeing to comply with it. The participants decided to violate this policy. Mary Beth Tinker and Christopher Eckhardt were suspended from school for wearing the armbands on December 16 and John Tinker was suspended for doing the same on the following day. A suit was filed after the Iowa Civil Liberties Union approached the Tinker family and the ACLU agreed to help with the lawsuit. The children's fathers filed suit in the U.S. District Court, which upheld the decision of the Des Moines school board. A tie vote in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit meant that the U.S. District Court's decision continued to stand, and forced the Tinkers and Eckhardts to appeal to the Supreme Court directly.


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




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.

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