Tinker V. Des Moines Independent School District 1969

Paper Type:  Case study
Pages:  6
Wordcount:  1469 Words
Date:  2022-08-01


Tinker V. Des Moines Independent School District 1969 is a landmark case that touches on school children expression of their freedom through non-violent protests. The school children protested the Vietnam war through wearing of armbands to school. The school suspended these children. The court ruled that the children had the right of free speech as long as they did not interfere with the learning or safety of others, but the wearing of armbands would have a negative influence on other students. This paper tries to answer the question whether the Ninth Circuit made a mistake by allowing the school authorities to deny the student the opportunity to engage in silent and passive demonstrations to express their opinion. The Ninth Circuit argued that other students might react in a negative way towards the message. This led to the introduction of a heckler's veto into students' rights of free speech which is contrary to Tinker V. Des Moines Independent School District 1969 case. Also, this article tries to determine whether denying the student the opportunity to wear armbands in public school to protest for various issues violates their freedom of speech which is guaranteed by the First Amendment. This article provides an informed opinion with evidence from the case. The background information on the case will be provided, opinion supporting an opinion against the ruling made by the Ninth Circuit will be provided.

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Background Information (Facts Of The Case)

In the month of December 1965, a few students from Des Moines public school had a meeting in the home of Christopher Eckhardt who was sixteen years old at that time to plan a public expression of their support for a truce in Vietnam War. They agreed that they would wear black armbands to school. Des Moines school authority became aware of this declaration hence they met on December 14th and formulated a policy which stated that students wearing the armband would be asked to remove it, failure to which they would be suspended. On December 16, Christopher Eckhardt and Mary Beth Tinker went to school wearing their armbands and were sent home. Similarly, John Tinker was sent home the following day. The students did not return to school until after New Year's Day which was the planned end of the protest. The students with the support of their parents sued Des Moines school district for the violation of the students' rights of expression and asked for an injunction to stop the school authorities from disciplining the students. The outcome of the case was interesting as there are judges who supported the actions of the school authorities while others felt that the First Amendment allowed the students to engage in symbolic speech as long as their actions do not disrupt the learning and safety of other students. The school authority was given the mandate to uphold school discipline. The United States of America Court of Appeals affirmed the decision made by the district court without opinion (Rappaport, 2012).

Informed Opinion With Evidence

Argument Supporting Wearing Of Armbands (Majority Opinion)

The majority of judges on the Ninth Circuit, 7-2, argued that the black armband as they believed that it would not disrupt other students. This is was in line with the constitutional rights that are bestowed upon each and every citizen to freedom of expression and freedom of speech. The human rights of free speech apply even to school children hence the school authorities need to respect and uphold them. The Ninth Circuit made it known that students had a right to demonstrate in a peaceful way since one do not shed their constitutional rights including the right of expression and freedom of free speech at the gate as long as one is not hurting others or limiting their human rights. Therefore, in the Tinker V. Des Moines Independent School District 1969 case, the court made a very wise and informed choice by ruling that the First Amendment should be applied to all the public schools in the United States of America and that the school authorities should not censor the speech of the students unless their actions and other undertakings disrupt the learning activity in an institution. According to the verdict given, wearing of a black armband as a mode of expressing concerns over the Vietnam war was not disruptive in any way hence the judges stated that the First Amendment that addresses the human right to free speech and expression protected the students (Johnson, 1997).

According to Justice Fortas Abe who delivered the ruling of the 7-2 majority, the school authorities of Des Moines violated the basic human rights of free speech and expression. In their defence, Des Moines school officials were unable to prove that wearing the armband would interfere with the school operation. The school officials actions were due to a fear of possible disruption of school rather than any real interference (Johnson, 1997).

Argument Against Wearing Of Armbands (Dissents)

The verdict given on the Tinker V. Des Moines Independent School District 1969 was not unanimous as two out of the nine judges in the Ninth Circuit believed that the Des Moines school officials had the right and authority to ask the students to remove the armbands. Justice John Harlan II and Justice Hugo Black both dissented. Hugo Black had always believed that the disruptive symbolic speech like the one adopted by Tinker and her colleagues was not protected by the United States of America Constitution. Therefore, he wrote that under the Fourteen and First Amendments, the Federal and State Governments have no ultimate authority to censor or regulate citizen's content of free speech. However, he continued to state that people do not always have a right to deliver speeches or even engage in demonstrations where or when they please. According to Black, Tinker's behaviour was disruptive and it was the duty of the school officials to regulate and discourage such actions. He argued that when the public school defy the orders of the school authorities to keep their minds only occupied with class and schoolwork, then this is the start of a new and unwanted era of permissiveness in a nation which is fostered by the judicial system. The opinion of John Harlan was that he found not a single record that questions the armband regulation by the school officials (Portner, 2017).

Subsequent Jurisprudence

Tinker V. Des Moines Independent School District 1969 has since remained a frequent as well as viable court precedent. However, the high court rulings that were made on this case have been inadequate in the use in lower courts due to the limitations of the judgement on the scope of the free speech of the students. For instance, In Bethel District School, the court ruled that the speech by the high school students, sex innuendo-laden that was presented during the school assembly was not protected by the constitution of America. There are various other rulings that state that the school authorities have the right and mandate to regulate the freedom of speech of the students for many legitimate educational factors. Therefore, the school has powers to regulate the content of all the newspapers that are sponsored by the institution and all the content of non-forum communications. This is because it has been determined that the actions of some students claiming to be expressing their freedom of free speech and expression have disruptive as well as dangerous outcomes. For instance, the actions of some students have led to the promotion of illegal drug use. Many speeches in schools have been stopped since they had the potential to lead to hostility and violent reactions. It has been noted that if the students are left uncontrolled to exercise their freedom of speech and expression through threats, they will result into more threats hence disrupting the learning in those institutions as well as causing violence. This means that the judgement made during the Tinker case cannot be applied in all the cases since some cases bring chaos and bad behaviour in the high school setting (Portner, 2017).

As stated above, since the ruling made on the Tinker's case, the judicial system in the United States has not fully addressed the issue of student political speech in a school setting. Therefore, the lack of guidance has made it impossible for the lower courts to adequately and properly apply the rulings in the elementary as well as secondary school setting in the modern world. Therefore, it is of paramount importance that the judicial system gives further guidance so that more clarity can be gotten by the judges, students and the school officials.


Johnson, J. W. (1997). The struggle for student rights: Tinker v. Des Moines and the 1960s. University Press of Kansas.

Portner, K. M. (2017). Tinker's Timeless Teaching: Why the Heckler's Veto Should Not Be Allowed in Public High Schools. Miss. LJ, 86, 409.

Rappaport, D. (2012). Tinker Vs. Des Moines. StarWalk Kids Media.

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Tinker V. Des Moines Independent School District 1969. (2022, Aug 01). Retrieved from https://proessays.net/essays/tinker-v-des-moines-independent-school-district-1969

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