Tinker v. Des Moines at 40

By Mark Walsh — February 24, 2009 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Today is the 40th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling on the free speech rights of secondary school students.

The court decided Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District on Feb. 24, 1969. The justices held 7-2 that students had a First Amendment right to wear black armbands in school to protest the Vietnam War as long as school was not substantially disrupted.

Writing for the majority, Justice Abe Fortas wrote that students (as well as teachers) do not “shed their constitutional right to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

Time magazine wrote at the time that “the court made it plain that it was approving only demonstrations that do not sabotage the normal school routine.”

About four years ago, I spent a couple of days with John and Mary Beth Tinker, who were among the Des Moines students who wore the black armbands to their schools and who with their parents challenged the school district’s prohibition of their armband protests. I wrote this story about the Tinkers’ return to Iowa and a visit to a Des Moines school to disuss their case and its legacy.

The American Civil Liberties Union, whose Iowa branch represented the Tinkers in 1969, has this news release about the 40th anniversary of the decision.

Meanwhile, C-SPAN examined the Tinker case on its “America and the Courts” series last Saturday. The hourlong program includes an interview with Mary Beth Tinker.

At the Student Press Law Center’s site, American University law professor Jaime Raskin discusses the case in the organization’s February podcast.

And in the Des Moines Register today, SPLC Executive Director Frank D. LoMonte writes this in a guest column: “Regrettably, it is hard to know whether to mark Tinker‘s anniversary with a birthday party or a wake. Although Tinker remains the law of the land, reaffirmed as recently as 2007 by eight of nine Supreme Court justices, its protections have been hollowed out by later court rulings and the disregard of school administrators.”

The 2007 decision referred to by LoMonte is Morse v. Frederick, in which the court ruled that a student who displayed a “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” sign at a high school event was not protected by the First Amendment because school officials had the right to control drug-related expression in schools. Nevertheless, a majority of the justices did reaffirm Tinker’s basic principles.

In April, Ms. Tinker will address the National High School Journalism Convention about the case.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.