Tinker v. Des MoinesFactual and Procedural HistoryIn Tinker v. Des Moines Sch.
Dist., 393 U.S. 503 (1969), a dispute between three students and the Des Moines School District raised important and fundamental issues which directly implicated the meaning of the Free Speech Clause contained in the First Amendment.
The factual background involved a symbolic protest by three students against the Vietnam War. Two of the students were in high school and one was in junior high school; they wore black armbands to their respective public schools in order to protest America’s actions in Vietnam and to express through the armbands their hope that America would cease hostilities in Vietnam. This symbolic protest was done with the parents’ approval and it took place during the Christmas holiday season. The principals of the schools in Des Moines were not surprised by the black armbands; quite the contrary, they had learned of the students’ intentions in advance and they had created and implemented a school regulation to deal with this problem specifically.
The regulation was twofold and clearly publicized to the students. First, any student found to be wearing a black armband would be asked to remove the armband. Second, if any student refused to remove the armband then that student would be suspended from school until such time as that student returned to school without the armband. In the instant case, the three aforementioned students wore the black armbands to their respective schools.
When they refused to remove the armbands, or to subsequently return to their schools without the armbands, they were suspended until after the schools’ prohibition expired after the New Year’s Day holiday.The procedural history demonstrates that there was considerable disagreement regarding the scope of the Free Speech Clause and how it ought to have been applied given the precise facts of the case. The childrens’ guardians filed a complaint under section 1983 of Title 42 of the United States Code; in this complaint, the petitioners requested nominal damages and injunctive relief that would restrain the Des Moines School District’s directors and other officials from the schools from disciplining the students for wearing the black armbands. The United States District Court dismissed the complaint, finding that the schools’ actions were constitutional because “it was reasonable in order to prevent disturbance of school discipline” (Tinker v.
Des Moines Ind. Comm. School Dist., 393 U.
S. 503, 505: 1969). The case was appealed to the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals where the legal issues were deemed of sufficient significance for the court to sit en banc. Although the appellate court was deeply divided, in the end it affirmed the District Court’s dismissal of the complaint.
The United States thereafter agreed to hear the case by granting certiorari.Issues PresentedThe issue presented was whether the public schools’ regulation disallowing the wearing of armbands in public schools, when the armbands represented nothing more than a symbolic form of protest, violated the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.Court’s HoldingIn ultimately deciding on behalf of the petitioners, and reversing the lower courts, the United States Supreme Court made three holdings. First, the particular circumstances of the symbolic protest, the armbands being a silent and passive form of protest, the students were deemed to be neither disruptive nor behaving in a way that affected the rights of others; therefore, the students’ action was protected speech under the Free Speech Clause and applicable to the state under the Due Process Clause.
Second, given what was defined as the unique circumstances of the school environment, the Court held that the First Amendment applied to students as well as to teachers. Finally, the Court held that the prohibition of a student expressing an opinion is unconstitutional under both the First Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment where no evidence is produced to demonstrate that the prohibition is required to prevent a substantial interference with the school’s disciplinary function or that the prohibition prevents the infringement of the rights of others.Court’s ReasoningAs an initial matter, it is important that the Court’s decision was not unanimous; the majority decision was written by Justice Fortas and was joined in by seven of the nine justices. The majority began its reasoning by distinguishing lesser types of free expression and characterizing the facts of the instant case as involving First Amendment rights “akin to pure speech” (Tinker v.
Des Moines Ind. Comm. School Dist., 393 U.
S. 503, 508: 1969). The legal standard employed by the Court required that the school district demonstrate that the prohibition was narrowly designed in order to avoid a substantial type of interference with the school’s disciplinary function or that the prohibition was designed to prevent the conduct from otherwise interfering with the rights of others. The Court found, as a preliminary matter, that there was no such evidence in the record to meet these burdens; quite the contrary, the majority reasoned from the record that “the action of the school authorities appears to have been based upon an urgent wish to avoid the controversy which might result from the expression, even by the silent symbol of armbands, of opposition to this Nation’s part in the conflagration in Vietnam” (Tinker v.
Des Moines Ind. Comm. School Dist., 393 U.
S. 503, 510: 1969). In short, the majority reasoned that the prohibition was inspired by an urgent wish to avoid controversy and an urgent wish in no way satisfies the applicable legal standard.In addition, in support of its holdings, the majority was quite careful to examine the scope of the prohibition; to this end, the majority noted that other symbols that might cause political disturbances or other types of controversy were displayed on school grounds.
The Tinker prohibition was a very specific response to armbands protesting the Vietnam War and the record demonstrated that other students wore buttons and other symbols expressing different opinions. The prohibition, in effect, was denying this particular opinion while allowing for other potentially controversial opinions and the majority found this to be highly suspicious regarding the First Amendment. Furthermore, there did not occur any disturbances and there were no reported complaints in the record. There was nothing more than discussion among the students which was constitutionally acceptable.
Student AnalysisThe Tinker case represents the brilliance of the Free Speech Clause. This is because, rather than carving out exceptions, this decision defended the general principles of freedom of expression in several significant ways. First, the Court ruled rather firmly that freedom of expression is a pervasive right rather than restricted to specific forums (Zirkel 34). Rather than granting schools a special place in First Amendment jurisprudence, as the dissenting justices wanted to do, the court instead declared the Free Speech Clause to be the dominant applicable principle absent a showing of disciplinary disruption or the infringement of the rights of others.
Second, the decision was significant because it clearly stated that students in public schools, though minors, were entitled to these constitutional rights. The Free Speech Clause, in effect, was an individual right applicable to minors and not a privilege controlled by the state, the municipality, or the school district. Finally, the Court was careful to provide in its majority ruling that these constitutional rights were not absolute; indeed, there were situations in which student speech could be restricted or prohibited. A review of cases subsequent to Tinker confirms the fact that student speech has constitutional limitations.
One leading legal scholar has observed that “the Court’s later school speech cases–all of which have upheld restrictions on student speech–have demonstrated an increasing institutional awareness” (Blocher n.p.). This institutional awareness refers to the Court’s willingness to uphold restrictions on student speech when the applicable burdens have been satisfied by the schools.
In the final analysis, though the Court was divided 7-2, the majority’s reasoning in Tinker seems to have created sound constitutional principles that can accommodate a student’s freedom of expression while at the same time providing schools with evidentiary guidelines should they wish to challenge certain types of student expression. The majority’s reasoning, in short, demonstrates the wisdom of Tinker rather than the holdings alone. This case is an excellent example of the Court defending general constitutional ideals and principles while at the same time articulating certain limitations.;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;Works Cited;Blocher, Joseph.
“Institutions in the Marketplace of Ideas.” Duke Law Journal 57.4 (2008): 821+. Questia.
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Johnson, John W., ed. Historic U.S.
Court Cases: An Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. New York: Routledge, 2001.
Questia. 26 July 2009 ;http://www.questia.com/PM.
qst?a=o;d=107553359;.The Oyez Project, Tinker v. Des Moines Ind. Comm.
School Dist. , 393 U.S. 503;(1969) available at: (http://oyez.
org/cases/1960-1969/1968/1968_21);Zirkel, Perry A. “30th Anniversary of Tinker: A the Courtside Interview.” Phi Delta Kappan 81.1 (1999): 34.
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