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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)


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. This has been the unmistakable holding of the Supreme Court of the United States court for almost 50 years.


As part of a plan formulated by a group of adults and students in Des Moines, Iowa, petitioners John F. Tinker, Christopher Eckhardt and Mary Beth Tinker ("Students")  wore black armbands to their schools to publicize their objections to the hostilities in Vietnam and their support for a truce. Petitioners were aware that the school authorities a few days previously had adopted a policy or regulation that any student wearing an armband to school would be asked to remove it; refusal to do so subjected the student suspension until the student returned to school without the armband. The Students proceeded as planned, and as a result they were all sent home and suspended from school until they would come back without their armbands. The Students, through their fathers, filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Iowa, praying for an injunction restraining the school authorities from disciplining them. They also sought nominal damages. After an evidentiary hearing, the district court dismissed the complaint, upholding the constitutionality of the school authorities' action on the ground that the policy was reasonable in order to prevent disturbance of school discipline. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed without opinion. 


Was a policy allowing the suspension of students wearing black armbands to school in protest of the Vietnam War constitutional?




The Supreme Court of the United States reversed, holding that the regulation was unconstitutional. The Court held that the wearing of armbands was entirely divorced from actually or potentially disruptive conduct by those who participated in it and should not be restricted. The Court explained that the students’ 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.

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