Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District

393 U.S. 503 (1969)

In 1965, three Iowa students — Mary Beth Tinker, her brother John and John’s friend Chris Eckhardt — were suspended by school officials in Des Moines for wearing black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War. Inspired by Civil Rights protests, the three were part of a group of students who decided to wear the armbands as a silent protest in support of a ceasefire in Vietnam. Mary Beth Tinker was 13-years-old, her brother was 15 and Chris was 16.

The school, anticipating the protest after the student newspaper published an article about it, had created a policy that prohibited the armbands. On December 16, 1965, Mary Beth Tinker and Eckhardt wore their armbands to school; John wore his the following day. All three were suspended until they agreed to return to school without wearing the armbands. The three returned to school after their protest was to end, in January 1966.

With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, the students took the school district to court for violating their First Amendment rights and to get a court order permitting them to wear the armbands. The district court dismissed the case, stating, “[t]hese officials not only have a right, they have an obligation to prevent anything which might be disruptive of such an [educational] atmosphere.”

The plaintiffs took the case to the Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. The decision was affirmed without opinion.

The case was decided by Supreme Court in 1969, which reversed the lower court decisions. The Court held that the students’ speech was protected; students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” and school officials may not punish or prohibit student speech unless they can clearly demonstrate that it will result in a material and substantial disruption of normal school activities or invade the rights of others.

In fall 2013, Mary Beth Tinker embarked on a nationwide tour to speak with students about the First Amendment. In 2019, she is again traveling around the country to mark the 50th anniversary of the court ruling.

Read the opinion.