Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969)


By a vote of 7-2, the US Supreme Court upheld the First Amendment rights of students to protest the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands to school. The ruling opened the door for an expansion of student rights around the country.

A few days before the armbands were worn by John Tinker, aged 15, his sister Mary Beth, aged 13, and their friend, Christopher Eckhardt, aged 16, the principals of Des Moines schools adopted a policy that any student who wore an armband would be asked to remove it, and would be sent home if he or she refused to do so.  When they refused to take their armbands off, the three students were sent home.  They did not return to school until after the planned period for the protest had expired. 

The students then went to court, arguing that armbands were a form of symbolic speech and their First Amendment rights to freedom of expression had been violated by their suspensions.  Both the district court and the appeals court said their constitutional rights had not been violated. But the US Supreme Court, with Justice Abe Fortas writing the majority opinion, disagreed.   He declared: "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..."   Censoring student expression is impermissible, the court ruled, unless it "materially and substantially" disrupts the educational process or invades the rights of others.  This restraint on student censorship is known as the "Tinker standard."

Learn more from John Tinker, Mary Beth Tinker and Chris Eckhardt.

Listen to the oral arguments:

Read the decision:

A panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled in the mid 1990s that an Iowa school district policy barring gang symbols and colors was unconstitutionally "vague" (not specific enough).  The case was brought by a junior at West High School in Davenport , who was threatened with expulsion unless she had a small cross tattoo removed from her hand.  After laser surgery to remove the tattoo, she sued, saying it was not a gang symbol. 

(The US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit has jurisdiction over North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, Missouri and Arkansas, as well as Iowa.)

In 2005, the ACLU defended students who were punished for wearing T-shirts opposing abortion.  The girls were told to cover up or face punishment. The ACLU noted that it was ironic that they were at the same high school – Roosevelt High - where the Tinker siblings wore black armbands to protest the Vietnam War, leading to the milestone Supreme Court case, Tinker v. Des Moines