Legal History Close to Home

The Boonville Daily News profiled John Tinker, a Fayette, Missouri man who, as a high school student in the 1960s, petitioned the courts and instigated a groundbreaking case. In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the U.S. Supreme Court famously declared that students and teachers do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the school house gate.”

Tinker and his family were part of a group of people in Des Moines, Iowa, who decided to protest the Vietnam War by fasting and wearing black armbands during the Christmas season in 1965. The war was still quite popular at this time, so when school principals found out about the planned protest, they hastily made a rule:  Any student wearing an armband will be asked to remove it.  Students who refused will be suspended until they return to school without the armband.

In spite of the policy, Tinker and other students wore armbands to school. They refused to remove them, and the school imposed suspensions. The students’ petition to the court argued that the First Amendment limited the school’s power to punish them for an act of symbolic expression. The Supreme Court agreed. Justice Abraham Fortas wrote that students “may not be confined to the expression of those sentiments that are officially approved.”

The 1969 Tinker decision held that schools cannot punish students for such “pure speech” that does not substantially interfere with school discipline or the rights of others. It was the first time a court expressly held that students and teachers retain their constitutional rights in a school environment.

The article points out that in Fayette Tinker maintains a website that aggregates news articles on social issues. Meanwhile, subsequent Supreme Court decisions have watered down Tinker’s landmark holdings by giving school officials broad discretion to decide whether conduct “substantially disrupts” the work or discipline of the school.

The meaning of Constitutional provisions constantly evolves as courts consider novel questions. An experienced attorney will keep up with the changes and help you understand how the Constitution protects you and your family.