Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School Systems (1969) was a Supreme Court case famous as a foundational case on protecting first amendment rights of students at publicly funded schools. The case arose when school administrators expelled five students for wearing black armbands to school that at the time symbolized opposition to the Vietnam War. Denouncing the war efforts then was very unpopular among many, and the school defended its policy against the wearing of the bracelets because they feared violence would result. The kids were not allowed back to school until they removed the bracelets, and the parents sued for an injunction against the school leaders. The district court and appellate court both decided in favor of the school district citing the need for schools to be able to prevent disruptive conduct.
The Supreme Court overruled the lower courts, deciding that, without true reasons to expect disruptive conduct, a student’s first amendment right to freedom of expression must prevail over the needs of the school. In this case, the Supreme Court questioned the legitimate fear of the school administrators due to the fact that the kids only wore the bracelets peacefully, without disruptive speech or actions, and essentially as an act of “pure speech” at the heart of the first amendment. The Court did not rule out the possibility of schools banning certain expressions that likely would “substantially” interfere with running the school, but the Court emphasized that this cannot be just an unsubstantiated claim that violence may occur. Also, the Court emphasized that freedom of expression most strongly protects minority views on political matters, and given that no other types of symbolic speech were banned, the Court critiqued the ban by the administrators for targeting a specific minority view.
Tinker v. Des Moines became a landmark case that has slowly evolved since the ruling. Cases addressing later school free speech issues including vulgar speech, speech by students outside of campus, and more violent speech have tested the limits of the Supreme Court’s opinion in Tinker. Some cases appear to limit the protections in Tinker such as in Morse v. Frederick where the court allowed the expulsion of a student for displaying a sign stating “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” across the street from the school. Others such as Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. uphold these protections. Many of the boundaries remain unclear between free speech rights of the student and the rights of administrators to manage school conduct. However, in Tinker’s legacy, the higher an expression’s proximity to the school and violent content, the more likely the school may regulate the conduct. Action taken against an expression intended as a political opinion will receive higher scrutiny by courts.
[Last updated in March of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team]