by Christian Geramita, Press & Written Media Team
Upon reading the article title, many of you probably felt that you already knew what the article was about. However, have any of you ever considered the implications of Tinker? How it affects your ability to protest? How to stand up for your rights? If not, this is the article for you.
During the late 1960s, civil strife came to characterize large segments of American life, especially youth culture in public schools. In responding to the perceived injustice that materialized during the Vietnam War era, students at the Des Moines Independent School District in Iowa protested the war by wearing armbands with peace signs, stirring up controversy among their school’s faculty. Among the student protestors were Mary B. Tinker, John F. Tinker, Paul Tinker, Hope Tinker and Christopher Eckhardt, family and friends that were outraged by the conflict taking place in Southeast Asia.
As the students were planning on their protest, faculty at their local school preemptively banned students from wearing clothes, specifically armbands, that protested the Vietnam War. However, the students remained vigilant and despite being sent home multiple times for violating the school’s policy, they succeeded in completing their period of protestation.
The district court for southern Iowa heard the Tinker v. Des Moines case in 1968 after the students sued the school’s administrators who they believed violated their First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Additionally, the students emphasized that an injunction was necessary to prevent the further escalation of tension between students wishing to protest and faculty at their school. While the district court would side with the administrators, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit would hear their case as well, eventually maintaining the ruling of the lower court, with each ruling coming in 1967 and 1968, respectively.
During a time of tense and sometimes violent political discourse, the Supreme Court was interested in offering an opinion on the First Amendment. On November 12, 1968, the students at Des Moines would get their chance. Oral arguments commenced and each side presented their case.
With the students, there was a feeling that preventing their protests was a fundamental infringement on their freedom of speech. Their actions were not harming anybody and did not warrant the school to outright ban them from expressing their thoughts, especially during the contentious time that they were in.
However, with the school district, they argued that these protests served as a sufficient disturbance in the classroom to warrant systemic action, banning the wearing of the armbands and promoting the stability of the school’s culture. If the students were allowed to protest, they argued, more students could join in and disrupt the learning environment.
On February 24, 1969, the Supreme Court, in a 7–2 decision, sided with the Tinker family. In the majority opinion, Justice Abe Fortas stated that, despite the armbands being a rebellious symbol, this rebelliousness did not meet the criteria for the suppression of its use. Importantly, the court indicated that for school administrators to limit the free speech of students, good reasoning on the part of the school would need to be presented as to how the protests would lead to a disruption of the school environment. As the Des Moines school district did not demonstrate sufficient evidence that the armbands led to a tangible disruption, they subsequently lost the case.
In deciding this case, the Supreme Court established the Tinker Test as an objective measure to demonstrate whether protests by students meet the standard of sufficient disruption. Wearing armbands or other symbols of protest do not seem to fall under this category, but physical actions like picketing or verbal shouting could be considered sufficient evidence for reprimanding students.
Fifty years since the landmark Des Moines case, however, free speech in American public schools has remained a big issue among those wishing to bring attention to topics ranging from climate change to criminal justice. As students have become more cognizant of their ability to enact change in a world facing stresses from all sides, their protection in speaking freely has undergone limitations since the case.
For example, Bethel School District v. Fraser, a Supreme Court case dealing with free speech in a public school in Washington state, was decided in favor of the school’s decision to suspend a student who gave a student council speech that alluded to obscenities. In this instance, Matthew Fraser gave a speech endorsing his friend for the vice presidency and, in the process, gave a speech that was obviously alluding to inappropriate actions. Additionally, Matthew Fraser had his right to speak at graduation revoked, making him feel as if his constitutional right to freedom of speech had been violated.
However, in applying the Tinker test, the Court found that Fraser’s speech was sufficiently disruptive to the school environment insofar as it prevented the fostering of a stable, valuable school experience.
In totality, Tinker v. Des Moines set a precedent for constitutional rights within American public schools. It guaranteed that, in certain circumstances, students had the right to demonstrate and voice their opinions on issues that they are passionate about. Looking towards the future, it is important to recognize that with these afforded rights, students must conduct themselves with the same passion, focus and tenacity to enact change that they see as presently necessary, a fact that all of us can agree is important.
Knowing the sacrifices that past students have made, it becomes incumbent upon all of you students to remember your obligation to, when you feel passionate about a social issue, demonstrate for change in a legally protected way. Recognizing your own rights, reading case precedent, and speaking with your school’s administration are all changes that you should take if championing for social change is something you hold to be an important part of your life.
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