Free Speech (Symbolic)

Tinker v. Des Moines & Texas v. Johnson

Tinker v. Des Moines (1969)

  • John and Mary Beth Tinker of Des Moines, Iowa, wore black armbands to their public school as a symbol of protest against American involvement in the Vietnam War.
  • When school authorities asked that the Tinkers remove their armbands, they refused and were subsequently suspended.
  • Their father sued, but the District Court ruled that the school had not violated the Constitution. The Court of Appeals agreed with the lower court, and the Tinkers appealed to the Supreme Court.
  • In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the students had the right to wear armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War. Justice Abe Fortas emphasized that students have First Amendment rights. The school officials sought to punish petitioners for a silent, passive expression of opinion, unaccompanied by any disorder or disruptance on the part of the petitioners' interference with the school's work or of collision with the rights of other students to be secure and to be let alone.
  • Accordingly, this case does not concern speech or action that intrudes upon the work of the schools or the rights of other students.

Texas v. Johnson (1989)

  • Gregory Lee Johnson doused an American flag with kerosene and set it on fire as a political demonstration during the Republican National Convention in Texas, protesting the policies of the Reagan Administration and of certain corporations based in Dallas
  • No one was hurt or threatened with injury, but some witnesses said they were seriously offended
  • A Texas court tried and convicted Johnson. He appealed, arguing that his actions were "symbolic speech" protected by the First Amendment. The Supreme Court agreed to hear his case
  • The majority of the Court, according to Justice William Breenan, agreed with Johnson and held burning constitutes a form "Symbolic speech" that is protected by the First Amendment. The majority noted that freedom of speech protects actions that society may find very offensive, but society's outrage alone is not justification for suppressing free speech
  • The decision was (5-4)