AP®︎/College US Government and Politics
Course: AP®︎/College US Government and Politics > Unit 3Lesson 3: The First Amendment: freedom of speech
Tinker v. Des Moines (1969)
- In 1965, a public school district in Iowa suspended three teenagers for wearing black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War. Their families filed suit, and in 1969 the case reached the Supreme Court.
- The Court ruled that the school district had violated the students’ free speech rights. The armbands were a form of symbolic speech, which the First Amendment protects.
Background of the case
In 1965, Iowa teenagers Mary Beth Tinker, her brother John, and their friend Christopher Eckhardt decided to stage a peaceful protest of the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands to their public schools. School officials announced that students who wore armbands had to remove them or face suspension. The Tinker siblings and Eckhardt refused to remove their armbands, and the district suspended them until their protest ended.
Photograph of college-aged students marching, holding signs saying "End the War Now! Bring the Troops Home," "Stop the War," and "Bring Our Boys Home Alive."
Their parents filed suit against the school district, claiming that the school had violated the students’ free speech rights. Lower courts upheld the school district’s decision as a necessary one to maintain discipline, so the families appealed to the Supreme Court for a ruling. In 1969, the Supreme Court heard the case, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District.
One important aspect of the Tinker case was that the students’ protest did not take the form of written or spoken expression, but instead used a symbol: black armbands. Was "symbolic speech” protected by the First Amendment?
The Constitutional question at stake
Did the school district violate the students’ First Amendment right to freedom of expression?
Yes. The Supreme Court ruled that the armbands were a form of symbolic speech, which is protected by the First Amendment, and therefore the school had violated the students’ First Amendment rights. The silent protest had not interfered with the school’s ability to operate normally, and therefore the school district’s restriction of the student’s free speech rights was not justified.
Writing for the majority, Justice Abe Fortas explained the Court’s reasoning:
“In our system, state-operated schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism. School officials do not possess absolute authority over their students. Students in school, as well as out of school, are "persons" under our Constitution. They are possessed of fundamental rights which the State must respect, just as they themselves must respect their obligations to the State. In our system, students may not be regarded as closed-circuit recipients of only that which the State chooses to communicate. They may not be confined to the expression of those sentiments that are officially approved. In the absence of a specific showing of constitutionally valid reasons to regulate their speech, students are entitled to freedom of expression of their views.”
Why does Tinker v. Des Moines matter?
First, Tinker v. Des Moines shows how the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the First Amendment reflects a commitment to individual liberty. In this case, the Court affirmed that the right to free expression is more important than the need for government entities, like schools, to maintain order. Even minors have free speech rights that school officials must respect.
Second, the Tinker ruling confirmed that symbolic speech merits protection under the First Amendment. Symbolic speech describes a wide array of nonverbal actions: marching, holding protest signs, conducting sit-ins, wearing t-shirts with political slogans, or even burning flags. The First Amendment protects all of these forms of expression.
Check your understanding
Based on the ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines (1969), the Supreme Court is most likely to view a case concerning which of the following as a symbolic speech case?
What do you think?
What is symbolic speech? Should it be treated any differently than written or oral forms of expression?
Why do you think the Supreme Court has upheld restrictions on free speech under some circumstances, but overturned restrictions in others?
Want to join the conversation?
- Has any part of Tinker v. Des Moines ever been overruled or restricted?(9 votes)
- There have always been exceptions to the 1st Amendment, eg cannot be libelous (untrue), harmful, threat of violence, yelling fire in a theater would not be protected by 1st Amendment. Free speech in school isn't absolute. In Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier the court found that it was ok for the school to censor out articles in a school newspaper(17 votes)
- how many judges were with tinker v. des moines(7 votes)
- The verdict of Tinker v. Des Moines was 7-2. Chief Justice Warren and Justices Douglas,Fortas,Marshall,Brennan,White and Stewart ruled in favour of Tinker, with Justice Fortas authoring the majority opinion.
The dissenting Justices were Justice Black and Harlan.(3 votes)
- Why Tinker v. Des Moines (1969) and Schenck v. United States have different results?(3 votes)
- The answer for your question is given in a line in the verdict of Schenck v. United States:
". . .the character of every act depends upon the circumstances in which it is done . . ."
Schenck was actively trying to convince men to resist being drafted for WW1, which could have created a 'clear and present danger' for the country as their efforts could have sabotaged the war effort and hence the national security of the country.
The students of Iowa did nothing like that. They didn't ask anyone to resist the draft. They didn't even say or print anything. They simply wore a black armband to protest the war in Vietnam and performed an act of 'symbolic speech'. Therefore the verdict was in their favour.(4 votes)
- What does Fortas mean by saying that students are not “closed-circuit recipients of only that which the State chooses to communicate”?(2 votes)
- He means that students interact with each other and the outside world, not just the schools and themselves; they aren't "closed circuits" with only the school as an input or output.(2 votes)
- What was Justice Black's tone in his opinion?(2 votes)
- how did the affect the laws in place(1 vote)
- It didn't change the laws, but it did change how schools can deal with prtesting students. Basically, the school can't prevent or stp you from protesting n a way that won't interfere with school operations, nor can they suspend you for protesting. Although if you do interfere with school operations, then they can suspend you as you will be deemed as a "danger to student safety". So the laws didn't change, but the way that schools can deal with your speech did.(3 votes)
- Are any of the Tinkers still alive?(2 votes)
- what is an example of ethos in the article ?(1 vote)
- It seems, in my opinion, that this article is not for rhetorical purposes, but is rather informational. However, when the article recalls Forta's opinion on the case, the part where he addresses students as beings who are entitled to their first amendment rights, even at school, could be argued to having aspects of ethos.(2 votes)