Tinker vs. Des Moines

Symbolic Speech Rights in Schools

Back Story

Public School in Des Moines, Iowa in 1965.

  • Students organized a silent protest against the Vietnam War.
  • Planned to wear black armbands to school.
  • Principal found out and threatened suspension.
  • Students wore armbands despite warning and were suspended.
  • Parents and students sued the school district for violating the students rights of expression.
  • Court dismissed the case at first and held that the school districts actions were reasonable to uphold discipline.

The Case

  • "The Supreme Court held that the armbands represented pure speech that is entirely separate from the actions or conduct of those participating in it. The Court also held that the students did not lose their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech when they stepped onto school property."

  • "The school officials must be able to prove that the conduct in question would 'materially and substantially interfere' with the operation of the school. In this case, the school district's actions evidently stemmed from a fear of possible disruption rather than any actual interference."

  • "Justice Potter Stewart wrote that children are not necessarily guaranteed the full extent of First Amendment rights. Justice Byron R. White wrote a separate concurring opinion in which he noted that the majority's opinion relies on a distinction between communication through words and communication through action."

  • "Justice Hugo L. Black wrote a dissenting opinion in which he argued that the First Amendment does not provide the right to express any opinion at any time. Because the appearance of the armbands distracted students from their work, they detracted from the ability of the school officials to perform their duties, so the school district was well within its rights to discipline the students. In his separate dissent, Justice John M. Harlan argued that school officials should be afforded wide authority to maintain order unless their actions can be proven to stem from a motivation other than a legitimate school interest" (Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 2015).

Influence on Schools


"The record does not demonstrate any facts which might reasonably lead school authorities to forecast substantial disruption of or material interference with school activities, and no disturbances or disorders on the school premises in fact occurred."

"The constitutional rights of students in public school are not automatically coextensive with the rights of adults in other settings. The freedom to advocate unpopular and controversial views in schools and classrooms must be balanced against society's countervailing interest in teaching students the boundaries of socially appropriate behavior. Surely, it is a highly appropriate function of public school education to prohibit the use of vulgar and offensive terms in public discourse."


"Educators do not offend the First Amendment by exercising editorial control over the style and content of student speech in school-sponsored expressive activities so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns."