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Facts and Case Summary - Tinker v. Des Moines

Decision Date: February 24, 1969

Background

At a public school in Des Moines, Iowa, students planned to wear black armbands at school as a silent protest against the Vietnam War.

When the principal became aware of the plan, he warned the students that they would be suspended if they wore the armbands to school because the protest might cause a disruption in the learning environment. Despite the warning, some students wore the armbands and were suspended.

During their suspension, the students' parents sued the school for violating their children's right to free speech. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa sided with the school’s position, ruling that wearing the armbands could disrupt learning.

The students appealed the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit but lost and took the case to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Decision and Reasoning

In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court’s majority ruled that neither students nor teachers “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” The Court took the position that school officials could not prohibit only on the suspicion that the speech might disrupt the learning environment.

The dissent argued that the First Amendment does not grant the right to express any opinion at any time. Students attend school to learn, not teach. The armbands were a distraction. School officials, acting on a legitimate interest in school order, should have broad authority to maintain a productive learning environment.