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Fictional Scenario - Tinker v. Des Moines

The fictional scenario is based on the landmark Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines. 


Time: 50 Minutes

Lesson Outcome

Students will be able to apply the Supreme Court precedent set in Tinker v. Des Moines to a fictional, contemporary scenario.  They will practice civil discourse skills to explore the tensions between students’ interests in free speech and expression on campus and their school’s interests in maintaining an orderly learning environment.  They will have the opportunity to find common ground and come up with compromises.

Essential Question

To what extent should schools be able to restrict students’ freedom of expression on campus?

Civil Discourse: Setting Ground Rules (10 minutes) Lead the students through a brief ground rules-setting activity. Before launching a discussion of the behaviors listed on the page, start by asking students to name their pet peeves when it comes to how people act during difficult conversations. Using the list of behaviors in the activity, ask students to change or fine-tune the list and add their own recommendations for establishing and maintaining civility.

Fact Gathering and Analysis

  1. Read the Facts and Case Summary: Tinker v. Des Moines (5 minutes) Have students read the facts and case summary to themselves. They underline key facts that support the students’ side of the argument using a wavy line. They underline key facts that support the school district’s side of the argument using a straight line.
  2. Read the Fictional Scenario (5 minutes) Have students take turns reading the fictional scenario. They underline key facts that support the students’ side of the issues using a wavy line. They underline key facts that support the school’s side of the issues using a straight line.

Discussion Starter Instructions - 20 minutes

20 minutes. Organize students into two groups. One group is the students and one group is the school district. Have each side break into smaller groups or pairs and write key talking points for each of the following questions, then facilitate a discussion requiring the students to cite facts from the scenario to back up their statements as they practice civil discourse skills.

  1. Did the walkout disrupt the school’s learning environment?
  2. Did the administration violate students’ First Amendment rights?
  3. What compromise could the students have offered to ensure that there was no disruption to the learning environment as they exercised their free speech rights at school?
  4. What compromise could the administration have offered to protect students’ First Amendment rights while maintaining an orderly learning environment at school?

Activity Wrap Up - 15 minutes

Using the Civility Self-Reflection Tool, have students rate their own behavior during the class discussions.  Ask students to volunteer to share their findings.

Fictional Scenario

The Constitution and Civil Discourse – Free Speech and School Walkouts

In response to the newly announced mandatory school dress code at West High School, the Student Government Association (SGA) announced on social media that the first day back from spring break would be Free Speech Day and a walkout would be staged by the students to protest the new dress code.

The new dress code, which was authorized in a closed-door school board meeting without student input, was scheduled to go into effect the week after spring break. The policy banned apparel with messages and slogans of any kind – commercial, political, social, or humorous/ironic. The school board chair said the rationale for the message prohibition was twofold:

  1. To maintain an orderly learning environment, and
  2. To avoid conflict and disruption about what are inappropriate, offensive, or triggering messages to wear at school. 

In an open letter to the students and the community, the school board said that, in an increasingly polarized society, the message-free policy would reduce the potential for distractions and disruptions in favor of an orderly learning environment. The letter gave examples of T-shirts that had been worn at school and sparked heated discussions that took up class time. Examples included:

  • Don’t Be My 13th Reason.                    
  • We Call BS.
  • Believe in Something. Even if it Means Sacrificing Everything.
  • Black Lives Matter.
  • Confederate Monuments Forever.
  • #Me Too.

The protest was announced by SGA on Facebook and Instagram as a silent walkout scheduled during the first lunch period, when half of the student body would be released for lunch and half would be in class. Students were to wear their free speech T-shirts under their clothes so that the only time the messages would be visible was during the protest. Other students posted comments on social media that there is no place at school for the disruption caused by racist or other discriminatory messages or student walkouts.

When the school administration learned about the walkout, the principal sent out a robocall in advance, warning that students who walk out of school would face consequences for disrupting the school’s learning environment. The Honor Society put up posters condemning the walkout, claiming it would take class time away from preparation for high-stakes tests the following week.

On the day of the protest, as the students walked out of the building, administrators videotaped them in order to accurately identify the participants. Approximately 175 students – almost half of the student body – walked out into the courtyard on school property. Students came from the cafeteria and the classrooms. 

Some students carried signs that read: “Civic Action Isn’t Disruptive, It IS my Civics Education.” Many wore T-Shirts that read: “We Don’t Shed Our Rights at the Schoolhouse Gate” a reference to the Supreme Court’s 1969 decision in Tinker v. Des Moines, long considered the landmark case that broke open students’ free speech rights at school. The principal suspended all students identified in the video.

Parents of some of the students who were suspended filed a lawsuit against the school district and principal, claiming that the message-free policy violated the First Amendment rights of students and that the walkout was protected speech under the Constitution.