Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District
393 U.S. 503 (1969)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Tinker v. Des Moines Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503 (1969)

Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District

No. 21

Argued November 12, 1968

Decided February 24, 1969

393 U.S. 503

Syllabus

Petitioners, three public school pupils in Des Moines, Iowa, were suspended from school for wearing black armbands to protest the Government's policy in Vietnam. They sought nominal damages and an injunction against a regulation that the respondents had promulgated banning the wearing of armbands. The District Court dismissed the complaint on the ground that the regulation was within the Board's power, despite the absence of any finding of substantial interference with the conduct of school activities. The Court of Appeals, sitting en banc, affirmed by an equally divided court.

Held:

1. In wearing armbands, the petitioners were quiet and passive. They were not disruptive, and did not impinge upon the rights of others. In these circumstances, their conduct was within the protection of the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth. Pp. 505-506.

2. First Amendment rights are available to teachers and students, subject to application in light of the special characteristics of the school environment. Pp. 506-507.

3. A prohibition against expression of opinion, without any evidence that the rule is necessary to avoid substantial interference with school discipline or the rights of others, is not permissible under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Pp. 507-514.

383 F.2d 988, reversed and remanded.

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Primary Holding

Since First Amendment protections extend to students in public schools, educational authorities who want to censor speech will need to show that permitting the speech would significantly interfere with the discipline needed for the school to function.

Facts

To protest the Vietnam War and support a proposal for a Christmas truce, five children in Des Moines, Iowa chose to wear black armbands to their schools. John Tinker and Christopher Eckhardt wore them to a high school, Mary Beth Tinker wore it to a junior high school, and Hope and Paul Tinker wore them to elementary school. In an attempt to pre-empt this action, the principals of the schools implemented a policy that would require children in school to remove armbands. If they refused to comply, they would be suspended and sent home until they did.

The two children who wore the armbands to elementary school received no penalty, but the other three were suspended on the basis of their armbands for the duration of the protest. In conjunction with the ACLU and the state Civil Liberties Union, the parents of the Tinkers challenged the action of the school board in federal district court. Its decision upholding the policy was sustained when the Eighth Circuit deadlocked in its review, which resulted in a direct appeal to the Supreme Court.

Procedural History

U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa - 258 F.Supp. 971 (S.D. Iowa 1966)

Complaint dismissed. Since there is no constitutional violation here, the plaintiffs failed to state a claim for which relief can be granted.

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit - 383 F.2d 988 (8th Cir. 1967)

Affirmed. The Court could not reach a decision, and a tied vote allows the lower court's decision to stand.

Opinions

Majority

  • Abe Fortas (Author)
  • Earl Warren
  • William Orville Douglas
  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr.
  • Byron Raymond White
  • Thurgood Marshall

The majority asserted that the First Amendment protected the speech and expressive conduct of children in public schools, which meant that any policy restricting speech would need to be justified on constitutional grounds. While a school board will receive some deference from courts, it must be able to cite something more than discomfort, awkwardness, or inconvenience as a basis for restricting speech. A concern that the speech or expressive conduct would interfere with school discipline is an example of a justification that probably would persuade a court to uphold a policy rationally connected to that concern. In this situation, however, wearing the armbands did not undermine school discipline, so the policy was unconstitutional.

Concurrence

  • Potter Stewart (Author)

Concurrence

  • Byron Raymond White (Author)

Dissent

  • Hugo Lafayette Black (Author)

Black voiced his disagreement with the entire line of Supreme Court jurisprudence that had permitted the First Amendment to protect expressive conduct. He thought that it should be strictly limited to speech alone. Also, he agreed with the school board that wearing the arm bands was disruptive and interfered with discipline.

Dissent

  • John Marshall Harlan II (Author)

Harlan found nothing in the evidence regarding the policy to suggest that the school board had an improper motive in deciding to implement it.

Case Commentary

Even if a topic is controversial, and some disruption may occur, expressive conduct is protected by the First Amendment. This decision is somewhat surprising because courts usually show greater deference to schools, based on their importance in helping children grow into disciplined, mature adults. Decisions since Tinker have taken a more restrictive view of free speech rights in this setting.

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