Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District
Students’ rights to free expression was the issue decided in a landmark 1968 Supreme Court case, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District.
Before then, the ability to symbolically exercise free speech rights protected under the First Amendment in a public school was not always allowed. Des Moines Independent Community School District chose to attempt to quash the symbolic speech expressed by the Tinker siblings and their friend, and state courts agreed with the school district through the appeals process.
The Iowa Civil Liberties Union volunteered to take the case to appeal. The U.S. Supreme Court sided with the students in a 7-2 majority, with dissenters arguing that symbols may not take the place of actual speech. The majority opinion was that public school officials could not abridge students’ rights to symbolic speech or free speech simply to avoid unpleasantness, that something more needed to be at stake.
In reaching their decision the justices called upon other cases of symbolic speech, including Stromberg v. California, which in 1931 decided that the state of California could not punish a member of a young communist group simply for being in possession of a banned red flag.
The Vietnam War was a sensitive topic, particularly for teens in the late 1960s who may be drafted and sent to battle (or know siblings or neighbors who were). It was a politically charged era of dissent and conformity, with boundaries challenged on every front.
Teens in Iowa were not immune to the national headlines and trends. Schoolmates John Tinker (15 years old) and Christopher Eckhardt (16 years old), along with Tinker’s siblings, MaryBeth, Hope, and Paul, all decided to wear black armbands to school to protest the war and show solidarity with Robert Kennedy’s call for a Christmas Truce in 1965. School officials quickly formulated a policy against such peaceful protest and suspended the older students for wearing the armbands.
The case is still a frequently-cited landmark and test for controlling student behavior including wearing graphic shirts and Confederate flags to school.