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Home Civics Free Speech History Tinker v. Des Moines: Establishing the Right

Tinker v. Des Moines: Establishing the Right

  • 1969 Supreme Court ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines found that students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate"
  • Tinker established broad precedent of student free-speech rights
  • More recent decisions have rolled back Tinker's broad protections

In 1969, the Supreme Court established a standard favorable to a broad interpretation of students' First Amendment rights in the case of Tinker v. Des Moines. The case began in 1965, when three Iowa public school students wore black armbands to school in silent protest against the Vietnam War. After being suspended by their principal, the students sued. When their case reached the Supreme Court four years later, the justices decided by a 7-2 majority that the First Amendment did apply to public school students. "It can hardly be argued," Justice Abe Fortas wrote in the majority opinion, "that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."61 As the Des Moines students' silent protest had not significantly disrupted the educational process, the school had no right to punish them for expressing their views. Most student journalists and their faculty advisers, in both high schools and universities, interpreted the broad Tinker standard to mean that administrators had no right to censor student expression in school newspapers.

But the Tinker standard always had its critics. One of the two dissenters in deciding the case, Justice Hugo Black, argued vehemently that the majority opinion was dangerously misguided. "I repeat," he wrote, "that if the time has come when pupils of state-supported schools... can defy and flout orders of school officials to keep their minds on their own schoolwork, it is the beginning of a new revolutionary era of permissiveness in this country fostered by the judiciary."62 While Black failed to sway his colleagues to his position in Tinker, his viewpoint—that student free speech rights ought to be narrowly limited in the interest of good discipline and educational effectiveness—has been echoed in more recent court rulings, which have significantly curtailed the student freedoms established in Tinker.

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